If you don't feel like reading, click the picture above to watch a video of me pitching my PhD in under 150 seconds! Otherwise you can read all about it below! Rewards for pledges can be claimed on the right side of the screen.
Picture yourself being unable to feel the touch of a loved one, the pleasure of a hot shower after a long day, or even just feed yourself. These are the daily challenges faced by people living with severe spinal cord injury.
There have been a few brave quadriplegic pioneers, involved in experimental procedures where they have received brain implants that connect their brain activity to robotic arms. Some of these patients can move the robotic arm, or in some cases, their own limbs, using electrical activity that is recorded from their brain and used to control the limb. However, these patients do not receive sensory feedback from the limbs, so if they cannot see the limb, they have no idea where it is in space. This is challenging for tasks such as feeding, where the hand passes out of the visual field.
The willingness of these people to commit to donating their brains for the scientific development of this technology is truly inspiring and speaks volumes of their belief in the future of this research. Providing sensory feedback for these people is an essential step to allow normal movement.
A great example of this can be seen in the video below. You will notice that Jan must carefully watch the robotic arm at all times, to maintain control of its position. She briefly bumps her chin as she strains to see the chocolate near her mouth, and when she closes her eyes and loses focus, while she enjoys the chocolate, the arm drifts away.
Please note this is not a video from work in our lab, but from the lab of Andrew Schwartz at the university of Pittsburgh (UPMC). An extended version of this video was originally published on the UPMC YouTube channel, which you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76lIQtE8oDY
Our research aims to restore the sense of touch and proprioception. Touch information is essential for connecting us to the outside world, so that we can feel objects and proprioception is necessary to inform the brain of where our body parts are located in space. Sending information about the position of the robotic limb to the brain would allow the user to manipulate the limb for tasks such as feeding, without relying on vision. The sense of touch is important, not just for quality of life, but for the manipulation of objects and dexterity. Imagine trying to hold a delicate wine glass or tie your shoes, if you couldn't feel the objects at your fingertips.
We are targeting a region of the sensory brainstem, which receives signals from the body carrying touch and proprioceptive information as they ascend from the spinal cord on their way to the brain. We hope to stimulate the brainstem in a way that mimics the normal electrical activity that would otherwise occur naturally in this region, in response to a real sensory event on the body. Just like we can read messy hand writing, we hope to create signals that are near enough to the natural signals, so that when we stimulate the brainstem, the brain will be able to perceive touch and proprioceptive sensations.
Meet the team!
How the funds will be used
We seek support to purchase a specialised recording and stimulating electrode, referred to as a microelectrode array (MEA; see image below). These tiny little devices allow us to 'listen in' on, and stimulate, neurons of the brain with extremely high precision. Recording from and stimulating neurons are essential to understanding how sensory signals are represented in the brain, and for us to precisely target the correct neurons when we stimulate the brainstem.
The MEA we hope to purchase can be used for approximately 8-10 experiments. With this many experiments we can acquire really exciting and essential data that will form the foundation on which our future knowledge and experiments will be built.
We plan to spend 100% of the funding on buying a microelectrode array. Without an MEA we cannot conduct these planned experiments.
We can answer some key questions with each set of 8-10 experiments that we can use an electrode for, but the long term goal will require many of these electrodes.
The major challenge is the type of experimental set up we are aiming to use. While our team has extensive experience in each component of these experiments, the combination of stimulating in the brainstem and recording higher up in the brain has not been attempted by many groups in the world before.
These experiments cannot be done without these electrodes, and it is critical that not a single experiment is wasted, as these electrodes can only be used 8-10 times. Realistically, we will need many more electrodes in the future, but the data from these initial experiments will help us answer some key questions that will be the foundation on which our future work will be built.