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ASU bioengineer, kinesiologist using NIH funding to advance brain-controlled prosthetics

February 12, 2007

About 1.8 million Americans currently live without one or more of their limbs, according to the National Limb Loss Information Center. Until recently, amputees could expect no more than a plastic mold of their arm or leg that requires manual control.

Today, the face of prosthetics is changing. Researchers are moving beyond the standard plastic mold to lifelike limbs that operate like an actual part of the body by responding to brain signals.

Steve Helms Tillery, an assistant professor in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering’s Harrington Department of Bioengineering, and Marco Santello, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, have been working together for several years on understanding the control of arm and hand movements.

Five years ago, Helms Tillery teamed with ASU researchers Andy Schwartz (now professor of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh) and Dawn Taylor (now assistant professor of bioengineering at Case Western Reserve University) to demonstrate that monkeys could operate a robotic arm to feed themselves using their brain signals.

Now Helms Tillery and Santello are part of an interdisciplinary team trying to build a state-of-the-art prosthetic hand controlled entirely by brain signals.

Their work is part of a National Institutes of Health Bioengineering Partnership project, “Cortical Control of a Dexterous Prosthetic Hand,” funded by a recent grant of more than $5 million shared by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Washington, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Minnesota and Columbia University.

The ASU team will focus on the neurological component of the research by analyzing the types of brain signals used in the operation of a prosthetic device, as well as the sensory signals that a real hand sends back to the brain.

“This research is exciting because at the same time we are working to build something that can be of use to disabled individuals, we are also pushing the frontiers of knowledge regarding how the brain controls a complex system like the hand,” Helms Tillery says. “The impact of this research is not only academic. What this team is planning to accomplish is one important step on the road to technology with the potential to help thousands of people.”

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