The hand, wrist, and fingers are controlled through thousands of nerve channels. Current prosthetic arms have neural interfaces to only six or eight channels, enabling only simple movements without feeling or feedback to the brain. Mario Romero-Ortega, a bioengineer at the University of Texas Arlington, has received a $2.2 million grant from DARPA to advance a new neural interface that will potentially connect hundreds of nerves to tiny neural interfaces in the limb itself.
RENET (REliable NEural INterfacing) is part of DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office in Arlington, Va. This research project for the Department of Defense is designed to provide improved prosthetics for veterans returning as amputees.
“What makes our research different is that we’re putting the neural interface in the limb itself,” says Romero-Ortega, speaking of the tiny interfaces that enable the arm to interpret what the brain is telling it to do, and for the brain to interpret what the arm is doing. Neural interfaces and feedback are necessary to give amputees the most natural control and sensory perception.
The Brain-Machine Interface is currently the focus of about 90 percent of research in prosthetics. Hundreds of nerve channels can be connected using this method, but it requires invasive surgery to implant the nerural interfaces. Romero-Ortega’s research has shown that nerves can be integrated into electrodes through nerve regeneration. The goal is long-term neural stability and reliability. Clear nerve signals should lead to viable engineered systems sufficient for 50 to 70 years of usage.
Romero-Ortega says team members bring unique strengths to the research lab. His expertise is in neuroscience, nerve regeneration, molecular biology, and regenerative neural interface. Young-tae Kim, a UT Arlington bioengineering assistant professor, works with markers of inflammation, bioengineering, neurointerfaces, and histology. Yan Li, a UT Arlington assistant professor of mathematics, specializes in biostatistics and biometrics.
The project also includes Harvey Wiggins and Edward Keefer, president/founder and research scientist of Dallas-based Plexon, respectively, who bring their expertise in neurophysiology, multielectrode electrophysiology, and biochemistry to the research effort.
Information for this article was provided by the University of Texas at Arlington.