Doctoral students Francesco Tenore and Jacob Vogelstein are helping Ralph Etienne-Cummings, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, to develop a microchip based on the electrical signals that travel along the spinal cord of a lamprey eel. (photo by Will Kirk)
In a collaboration that blends biology and robotics, researchers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland are unraveling the circuitry in an eel's spinal cord to help develop a microchip implant that may someday help paralyzed people walk again.
The two-school research team's goal is to make a device that could mimic the signals sent by the brain and coax nerve centers in the lower back into sending "walking" instructions to muscles in a patient's legs.
"This is a challenging, long-term project, but we believe it has a good chance to succeed," said Ralph Etienne-Cummings, an electronics and robotics expert who is lead researcher on the project at Johns Hopkins. "Our first step is to learn how the brain transmits electrical messages along the spinal cord that tell the legs what to do. Then, we want to make microchips that replicate this process. We've started by modeling the way swimming signals move along the spinal cord of a lamprey eel."
He is working with Avis H. Cohen, who has spent many years studying the lamprey's nervous system and how it directs swimming. Cohen is a professor in the Department of Biology, Neuroscience and Cognitive Science at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Even though the lamprey is a very primitive vertebrate, we and others have shown that it's remarkably like humans in the ways it makes and controls its locomotion," Cohen said.
The researchers are now moving to expand their project by developing a neuroprosthetic implant that would connect to human central pattern generators to restore locomotion in patients with spinal cord injuries.
Etienne-Cummings discusses the project in the video clips, which are in Windows Media format below:
biology solves problems
To read the news release about this collaboration, click here
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