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Spelman College will participate in a new multi-institution research center established to work on robotic devices that interact with, assist and understand the nervous system. Funded by an $18.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering will combine advances in robotics, neuroscience electromechanical devices and computer science to restore or augment the body’s ability for sensation and movement.

"I'm thrilled that Spelman computer science and STEM students and faculty will have educational opportunities, research experiences, and faculty exchanges with CSNE and the University of Washington where the center is based,” said Andrew Williams, Ph.D., chair, Computer and Information Sciences and director of the Humanoid Engineering and Robot Systems lab, Spelman. “Spelman's experience with humanoid robotics research and education make us a natural fit for learning how the brain and nervous system interfaces can be extended to help people with disabilities move robotic or natural limbs."

At the center, which launches this month, researchers will develop new technologies for amputees, people with spinal cord injuries and people with cerebral palsy, stroke, Parkinson’s disease or age-related neurological disorders.

“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,” said 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.”

Partners include Spelman, MIT, UW, San Diego State University, Morehouse College, Southwestern College, the University of British Columbia and the University of Tokyo. Faculty and students from Spelman's HERS lab along with 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.

CSNE has 23 industry partners including Microsoft Corp., Intel Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. as well as smaller companies and startups such as Impinj Inc., NeuroSky Inc. and NeuroVista Corp. Industry organizations and venture capitalists will also 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 grant is for five years of funding, with the possibility of renewal for another five years. 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.

This NSF-funded engineering research center’s primary mission is to integrate research with education and community outreach. The center will work with school districts in Seattle and San Diego to develop neural robotics curriculum for middle school and high school students. It also will reach out to women, underrepresented minorities and people with disabilities.


About Spelman College
Founded in 1881, Spelman College is a highly selective, liberal arts college widely recognized as the global leader in the education of women of African descent. Located in Atlanta, Ga., the college’s picturesque campus is home to 2,100 students. Outstanding alumnae include Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman; Sam’s Club CEO Rosalind Brewer; JPMorgan Chase Foundation President Kimberly Davis; former acting Surgeon General and Spelman’s first alumna President Audrey Forbes Manley; Harvard College Dean Evelyn Hammonds; author Pearl Cleage; and actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson. For more information, visit www.spelman.edu.

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