Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Professor works to create seamless connection between brain and prosthetics


A new device in development at DU could allow amputees to control prosthetics with their thoughts. PHOTO BY: Mike Richmond.

When it premiered on television in the 1970s, the “Six Million Dollar Man” and lead character Steve Austin’s bionic limbs were the stuff of science fiction. Today, that technology is on the verge of becoming science fact.

Rahmat Shoureshi, dean of Engineering and Computer Science at DU, received a $295,000 National Science Foundation grant this summer to fund development of brain-imaging technologies that may soon allow amputees to control electronic prosthetics with just a thought.

For a soldier back from Iraq, the victim of a sports accident or the survivor of a traffic mishap, the technology could change lives.

“The grant focus is on developing what is called adaptive human/machine interface,” Shoureshi explains. “What we are trying to do is develop systems that allow individuals who have physical disabilities and have prosthetic devices to be able to directly control those with a natural motion.”

Shoureshi is working closely with DU PhD candidate Chris Aasted, a student he has known since Aasted was a high school senior.

‘Reading’ with light waves

And the exciting part, Shoureshi says, is that this new technology uses light waves that peer inside the human brain without surgery and in real time.

Patients would wear a slim, lightweight scanner on their head. The light waves would “read” activity in carefully mapped areas of the brain, and then convert the thought of movement into an electronic signal to the prosthetic. Thinking about moving an artificial arm or a leg would make it actually move.

The goal is to achieve that in an affordable, easy-to-use device that would be work without the patient having to shave for it to work.

In documents supporting the grant, Shoureshi notes that there are about 1.6 million Americans living with the loss of one or more limbs. As DU scientists develop and test the work over the next three years, the study will grow to involve patients from area medical centers. High school students will have a chance to take part in the science with study visits to DU.

Impact on soldiers

Shoureshi is excited about the immediate benefit to the growing number of soldiers being injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“In these wars, there are 21-year-old, 22-year-old soldiers coming back injured. They have their whole lives ahead of them. This could change everything for them,” he says.

“Of all of the research projects I’ve worked on, if this works, this would be the most exciting project I’ve ever undertaken.”

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