NeuroTech Center

The NeuroTech Center has the initial goal of restoring movement and sensation to the paralyzed and to amputees, and communication to patients who are locked in.  To accomplish these goals, the Center will develop new tools for long-term recording and stimulating populations of neurons in the brain. We also are creating a Smart Home, where paralyzed patients can be involved in the development and testing of new technology. Future developments in the NeuroTech Center are expected to have broad application in areas beyond movement, including restoration of vision, as well as for treating disorders of affect and cognition.

The Center will provide a vibrant research environment, with shared research space, specialized facilities and intellectual expertise for scientists, bioengineers and clinicians who are interested in advanced neurotechnology.  Architects have been charged with designing open spaces that will promote collegial interactions that spark innovation and research collaborations across multiple disciplines.  The Center is intended to operate both as a sort of think tank as well as an incubator space, providing access to equipment and expert consultation and thus lowering the barriers to entering the field.

Our immediate objectives are to:

  • improve the dexterity and coordination possible with brain control of high-performance robotic limbs.
  • create a sense of feeling from these prosthetic arms and hands.
  • develop a telemetry system so that our devices can be used in everyday life, away from the laboratory.
  • develop faster, more effective devices for generating speech than the eye gaze systems now in use for locked-in patients.

In the longer term, we intend to develop brain-computer interface, or BCI, technology with the potential to restore function to paralyzed limbs themselves, through novel techniques for activating muscles that no longer can directly communicate with the brain and spinal cord. 

Some of these projects will build on Pitt’s advances in brain-controlled prosthetics for paralyzed individuals. In 2012, Jan Scheuermann of Whitehall, PA, demonstrated the feasibility of BCI technology by using a robotic arm to feed herself sliced fruit and vegetables, string cheese and her own personal favorite, a chocolate bar.  With her thoughts alone, she also was able to use the robotic arm to sort, stack and move a variety of objects of different shapes and weight. A writer and former murder-mystery party planner, Jan is paralyzed from the neck down.  She volunteered to have microelectrode arrays implanted in her motor cortex, so that Pitt’s scientific team could tap into her neural activity and enable her to operate prosthetic devices.  This highly interdisciplinary project followed years of basic research in Pitt’s Motorlab, and has been successful largely because of a talented team of bioengineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, neurologists, neurophysiologists, neurosurgeons, rehabilitation specialists, roboticists and statisticians at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University and the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins.  As part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, project, APL has overseen the development of the sophisticated motorized prosthetic arm and hand that our subjects have been using.  The Modular Prosthetic Limb has human-like capabilities, including 30 tactile receptors and the ability to lift 35 pounds

To get BCI out of the lab and into the home and the patient’s community, our systems must be wireless.  We are in the early stages of designing a telemetry system, similar to Bluetooth technology, that will eliminate the need for patients to be tethered by bulky cables to banks of computers.  We also are conducting studies to improve the biocompatability of neural probes, to extend by many years the length of time that brain signal-recording devices continue to work at optimal levels.  We are developing more powerful extraction algorithms (the number-crunching programs used to decode intention to move from neural signals).  Finally, we are helping to develop a new generation of prosthetic arms and hands that are lightweight, dexterous and robust enough for daily use.

At the same time, we are creating a demonstration home with technology that improves quality of life  for wheelchair-bound individuals who have little or no use of their upper extremities, and eases physical burden on their caregivers. Paralyzed subjects who participate in this project will be implanted with chronic microelectrode arrays to record neural activity from their brains.  These signals will be used to operate a wide variety of appliances and systems in the Smart Home.

In conjunction with these developments at Pitt, a major initiative has been launched for new assistive technology for families affected by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), with support from the local charitable organization, LiveLikeLou.org, and the University. The NeuroTech Center is committed to addressing this disorder with therapeutic approaches that can be implemented within the next one to three years.   We expect to be able to recruit individuals with ALS soon for intracortical validation studies.  These ALS subjects will have the opportunity for extended stays in the the Smart Home so that they and their caregivers can gain expertise with new technology.  Then they can return to their own homes, outfitted with the same devices.

Overall, the NeuroTech Center has the broad goal of sparking creative ideas that lead to solutions to difficult problems. Each Center investigator will have only a small footprint within the facility to carry out work that blends well with the interests common to other Center investigators.  Most will probably want to retain their current research locations. The Center is intended to enhance intellectual exchange among creative scientists and engineers, and to promote development of new research directions in an atmosphere that encourages the creativity that can emerge between researchers in many different disciplines.