Subbaram Naidu
Image Credit: ISU Photographic Services

Researchers Hope to Develop 'Smart' Prosthesis

A project that researchers hope will lead to development of a "smart" prosthetic hand may end up being the proverbial tip of the iceberg in Idaho State University's effort to study and utilize the tiniest of nature's materials.

The Department of Defense's United States Army Medical Research and Material Command (USAMRMC) has funded the first phase of a threephase project that researchers hope will eventually lead to a prosthetic hand useful for wounded soldiers.

Looking beyond that important objective, however, Idaho State University researchers also envision establishment of an ISU Research Center for Nanotoxicity and Nanoscience.

University engineers, a biomedical researcher, a physical and occupational therapist and two ISU doctoral students from China's Nantong University are collaborating on the project. One of the Chinese students is an expert in nano-sensors. The other has expertise in applying sensors to the detection of cellular impulses.

The team's goal is a device that will use nerve signals to fully simulate natural hand motions. Such an artificial hand would respond to sensory and visual feedback.

"The existing commercial technology for arm and hand amputees hasn't changed significantly in the past six decades," said Subbaram Naidu, Ph.D., ISU professor of electrical engineering and the grant's principal investigator.

The project involves a collaboration of researchers from the College of Engineering. They include Naidu; mechanical engineers Alba Perez, Ph.D., and Marco Schoen, Ph.D.; and civil/environmental engineer Solomon Leung, Ph.D.

The group is working with James Lai, Ph.D., in the College of Pharmacy, with input from Alex Urfer, Ph.D., chair of the physical and occupational program in the University's Kasiska College of Health Professions.

The first phase of the project is theoretical development, which will be followed by building and testing phases if the final two phases are funded.

In simple terms, researchers will use skin sensors for electromyographic (EMG) signal extraction, recording the electrical activity in skeletal muscle. They will then try to determine which EMG signals correspond to intended hand motions.

Next, they will try to develop an "intelligent" control for prosthetics using a variety of sophisticated computing techniques.

After developing a robotic hand, the group will test its sensing and transmission systems. The researchers will then test the biological compatibility of the hand.

Lai and Leung say the project is a step toward developing and harnessing expertise in the field of nanotoxicity. That, they say, may lead to establishment of a multidisciplinary research center at Idaho State University that involves departments in pharmacy, engineering, chemistry and biological sciences.

Nanoscience and nanotechnology involve studying and using particles much smaller than a cell. Nanoparticles are about 750 times smaller than a red blood cell.

Lai, who has a pharmacological/ biological sciences background, has collaborated with Leung, with his engineering background, on a series of studies of how small nanoparticles— such as those coming from titanium dioxide that is used in cosmetics and industrial applications—affect both healthy and cancerous cells.

"Everybody recognizes that the issue of nanotoxicity is important, but the data are not there," Leung said. "We are as much at the forefront as any institution in exploring nanotoxicity, and we believe there is great potential here to establish a center."

Andy Taylor
ISU Magazine