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$1.6 Million to Advance Implantable Neuroprosthetics

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have left a terrible legacy: more than 1,200 returning American soldiers have lost one or more limbs. To address this growing national need, researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) are laying the groundwork for a new generation of advanced prosthetic limbs that will be fully integrated with the body and nervous system. These implantable neuroprosthetics will look and function like natural limbs, enabling injured soldiers and the more than 2 million other amputees in the United States lead higher quality, more independent lives.

As part of the recently approved Department of Defense appropriations bill, the U.S. Congress has allocated $1.6 million to the Center for Neuroprosthetics and BioMEMS (CNB), part of WPI's Bioengineering Institute, to advance this groundbreaking work. Sponsored by Massachusetts Senators John Kerry and Paul G. Kirk Jr and Massachusetts Representative James P. McGovern, the allocation will, in particular, fund work at WPI on neural control for advanced prosthetics. The allocations will be directed by the U.S. Army's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Resource Center (TATRC).

"WPI's involvement with neuroprosthetics began with the encouragement and support of Senator Ted Kennedy, who helped secure the funds that launched our neuroprosthetics center," said Dennis D. Berkey, WPI president and CEO. "We are grateful for the leadership of Senators Kerry and Kirk and the support of Congressman McGovern, who have made it possible for the important work Senator Kennedy started to continue. These funds will generate extraordinary technological advances that will give hundreds of soldiers, veterans, and other Americans a quality of life they might have thought impossible."

"These federal investments will not only substantially increase the quality of life of our injured soldiers and veterans, but will also help stimulate the Massachusetts economy by fostering local innovation, expanding our strengths in health care and medical devices, and creating good-paying jobs," Rep. McGovern said.

In all, 30 WPI researchers, from multiple science and engineering disciplines, including regenerative biology, tissue engineering, surface science and nanotechnology, and biomedical signal processing, are engaged in work related to neuroprosthetics. Their research focuses on two primary goals: regenerating tissue to create a robust soft-tissue seal around an implanted limb to make possible natural movement and deter infection; and using engineered micro-wires as scaffolds for the recruitment of neural stem cells and the regeneration of nerves. Ultimately, by regenerating nerves, it is anticipated that it will be possible to connect the limb directly to the nervous system, enabling it to send feedback to and receive commands from the brain.

"With advances in body armor and battlefield medicine, soldiers are far more likely to survive combat injuries today than during past conflicts," says W. Grant McGimpsey, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and director of WPI's Bioengineering Institute and the CNB. "But too often, they return home to find their quality of life curtailed. We owe it to those who have made sacrifices for our country to apply our know-how and expertise to making them whole again. This is the goal that drives everyone engaged in this research."

WPI's research in implantable, neurally controlled prosthetics began in 2007 as a result of $1 million Congressional allocation to support CNB, championed by Senators Kennedy and Kerry, and Congressman McGovern. An award from the John Adams Innovation Institute enabled the new center to explore relationships with other research institutions, and to establish the nation's first symposium series dedicated to advancing the field of neuroprosthetics. The first national symposium was held at WPI in September 2009 and planning is under way for Neuroprosthetics 2010.

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