Jose Contreras-Vidal, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UH, is working on a revolution in the realm of bionic robotics. He is working to give the disabled the gift of mobility, not through wheelchairs or joystick controlled apparatus, but through a set of robotic legs modified to function under the direction of the brain itself.
The Rex Bionics Robotic Exoskeleton is a contraption that fits around each leg and the torso, along with two armrest extensions and a joystick. The user is strapped and braced into the device, which is capable of walking up stairs and is stable enough that it cannot be unintentionally knocked over with a person inside of it.
Contreras-Vidal has been working to harness the electrical impulses of the brain and translate them into commands for the REX machine.
“Think about a symphony; it’s a collection of instruments and players that synergistically work to produce a musical piece,” Contreras-Vidal said.
“The brain consists of multiple areas, all somewhat specialized — just as the musical instruments — and the concerted actions of the ensemble results in in a neural symphony leading to cognitive-motor actions and movements.”
According to Contreras-Vidal, the major way in which his work differs from other research is that it focuses on the lowest frequencies of the neural impulses of the brain to decipher those associated with motion.
Another major difference is the use of electroencephalography instead of intracranial electrodes or receivers that must be implanted surgically into the brain. Contreras-Vidal said this was an unconventional approach.
“It was thought to be very hard, if not impossible, to ‘read the brain’ using EEG with enough accuracy to develop neural interfaces. Our work has not been simple,” Contreras-Vidal said.
Contreras-Vidal’s accomplishments with REX come on the heels of his research on developing a brain-to-computer interface at the University of Maryland. He was awarded a Research and Development Award for the School of Public Health. This award-winning research included moving a cursor on a screen when subjects thought about moving it, giving great implications not only for the realm of medicine but also for that of video games and virtual gaming communities.
Contreras-Vidal decided against trying to wrestle with intracranial electrodes because of the issues associated with the technology.
“There are still many unknown and known problems with invasive methods based on intracranial electrodes. Some of these problems are associated with the surgical risk, motion of the electrodes, biocompatibility, degradation of signal integrity,” Contreras-Vidal said.
“There is much interest and federal funding in understanding why intracranial electrodes fail, because this represents a road barrier for clinical use.”
According to Contreras-Vidal, his “NeuroRex” carries none of the risks associated with intracranial electrodes and still responds to thought.
On June 13, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Enterprise Forum of Texas hosted a series of lectures on “New Innovations in Medical Robotics” at the Methodist Hospital Research Auditorium where Contreras-Vidal unveiled his work with Eugene Alford.
Alford is a patient who is paralyzed from the waist down. He sought out the professor personally for hel, and — with the help of the NeuroRex machine — he was able to take several steps.
The professor’s research continues in the realm of brain-to-machine interface with not only the task of restoring the ability to walk but also with assisting those with upper arm problems to regain dexterity in those limbs.
Contreras-Vidal acknowledges the difficulties in translating to clinical work. Luckily, his knowledge, from engineering to neuroscience and computer engineering, has taught him the value of cooperation between the disciplines.
“Our clinical translational work requires further training in health system engineering, rehabilitation engineering, regulatory sciences and others to name a few,” Contreras-Vidal said.
“This is of course a challenge unless you have a team of collaborators from those disciplines. It is why UH and the Texas Medical Center must work on a close partnership to innovate rehabilitation engineering and other emergent neurotechnologies.”