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MIT part of $18.5 million effort to create mind-machine interface

New multi-institution center will work on robotic interaction with nervous system
The National Science Foundation today announced an $18.5 million grant to establish a multi-institution Engineering Research Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering. MIT faculty from both the School of Engineering and School of Science will participate in the center. 

The center, based at the University of Washington (UW), will work on robotic devices that interact with, assist and understand the nervous system. It will combine advances in robotics, neuroscience, electromechanical devices and computer science to restore or augment the body’s abilities for sensation and movement.

The center launches this month and includes researchers from MIT, UW, San Diego State University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, Southwestern College, the University of British Columbia and the University of Tokyo. The grant is for five years of funding, with the possibility of renewal for another five years.

Researchers will develop new technologies for amputees and people with spinal-cord injuries, cerebral palsy, stroke, Parkinson’s disease and age-related neurological disorders. “The center will leverage MIT’s strengths in electronics, robotics, microfabrication and neuroscience to dramatically improve our ability to usefully interface machines with humans,” says MIT’s Joel Voldman, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, who will be one of the center’s deputy directors.

“We already see chips that interface with neural systems and then stimulate the right muscles based on that information, and we have purely mechanical lower-limb prostheses that are fast enough to compete in the Olympics,” says Yoky Matsuoka, a UW associate professor of computer science and engineering and director of the new center. “Our center will use sensory and neural feedback to give these devices much more flexibility and control.”

Scientists at MIT and partner institutions will work to perform mathematical analysis of the body’s neural signals; design and test implanted and wearable prosthetic devices; and build new robotic systems.

The center’s 23 industry partners include Microsoft Corp., Intel Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp.; smaller companies and startups such as Impinj Inc., NeuroSky Inc. and NeuroVista Corp.; as well as industry organizations and venture capitalists that will help turn ideas into products and companies.

Collaborators also include nonacademic research institutions such as the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the La Jolla Bioengineering Institute, and hospitals in Seattle and San Diego.

The majority of the funding will support undergraduate and graduate student research. Early systems might involve remote or wearable devices that help guide rehabilitation exercises to remap brain signals and restore motor control. Ultimately, researchers hope to develop implantable prosthetics that are controlled by brain signals and include sensors that shuttle information back to wearers so they can react to their environment — creating robotic systems that are truly integrated with the body’s nervous system.     

As with all NSF-funded engineering research centers, this one has a mission to integrate research with education and community outreach. The center will work with school districts in Seattle and San Diego to develop neural-robotics curricula for middle school and high school students. It also will reach out to women, underrepresented minorities and people with disabilities. At MIT, the center will interface with existing education and outreach programs, including the Minority Introduction To Engineering and Science (MITES) Program and the Laureates and Leaders Program.

“We’re excited to be building a pathway, starting from about middle school, for students to be exposed to research and to this topic,” Matsuoka says.

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