MeVR is a bioresponsive virtual reality platform for administering biofeedback therapy. Biofeedback is the process of gaining greater awareness of involuntary physiological functions using sensors that provide information on the activity of those bodily systems, with the goal of gaining voluntary control over functions such as heart rate, muscle tension, and pain perception. This therapy is used to treat a variety of conditions such as chronic pain, stress, anxiety, and PTSD. These treatments cost on the order of hundreds to thousands of dollars, require the presence of a therapist to set up and deliver the therapy session, and are generally not interactive or immersive. MeVR is a platform to reduce these limitations of biofeedback therapy through an individualized, immersive, and portable device which guides users through biofeedback therapy using wearable sensors and a virtual reality environment which responds in real-time to biological feedback from the user’s body.
Billiar, who received his M.S.E. and Ph.D. from Penn, began his research by first noticing the way that cells typically respond to the mechanical stimuli in their everyday environment, such as pressure or stretching, with behaviors like migration, proliferation, or contraction. He and his research team hope to find a way to eventually predict and control cellular responses to their environment, which they hope could open doors to more forms of treatment for disorders like heart disease or cancer, where cellular behavior is directly linked to the cause of the disease.
Self-Learning Algorithm Could Help Improve Robotic Leg Functionality
Obviously, one of the biggest challenges in the field of prosthetics is the extreme difficulty in creating a device that perfectly mimics whatever the device replaces for its user. Particularly with more complex designs that involve user-controlled motion for joints in the limbs or hands, the electrical circuits implemented are by no means a perfect replacement of the neural connections in the human body from brain to muscle. But recently at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, a team of researchers led by Francisco J. Valero-Cuevas, Ph. D., developed an algorithm with the ability to learn new walking tasks and adapt to others without any additional programming.
The algorithm will hopefully help to speed the progress of robotic interactions with the world, and thus allow for more adaptive technology in prosthetics, that responds to and learns with their users. The algorithm Valero-Cuevas and his team created takes inspiration from the cognition involved with babies and toddlers as they slowly learn how to walk, first through random free play and then from pulling on relevant prior experience. In a prosthetic leg, the algorithm could help the device adjust to its user’s habits and gait preferences, more closely mimicking the behavior of an actual human leg.
Neurofeedback Can Improve Behavioral Performance in High-Stress Situations
We’re all familiar with the concept of being “in the zone,” or the feeling of extraordinary focus that we can sometimes have in situations of high-stress. But how can we understand this shift in mindset on a neuroengineering level? Using the principal of the Yerkes-Dodson law, which says that there is a state of brain arousal that is optimal for behavioral performance, a team of biomedical engineering researchers at Columbia University hope to find ways of applying neurofeedback to improving this performance in demanding high-stress tasks.
Ultrasound Stimulation Could Lead to New Treatments for Inflammatory Arthritis
Arthritis, an autoimmune disease that causes painful inflammation in the joints, is one of the more common diseases among older patients, with more than 3 million diagnosed cases in the United States every year. Though extreme measures like joint replacement surgery are one solution, most patients simply treat the pain with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or the adoption of gentle exercise routines like yoga. Recently however, researchers at the University of Minnesota led by Daniel Zachs, M.S.E., in the Sensory Optimization and Neural Implant Coding Lab used ultrasound stimulation treatment as a way to reduce arthritic pain in mice. In collaboration with Medtronic, Zachs and his team found that this noninvasive ultrasound stimulation greatly decreased joint swelling in mice who received the treatment as opposed to those that did not. They hope that in the future, similar methods of noninvasive treatment will be able to be used for arthritic patients, who otherwise have to rely on surgical remedies for serious pain.
People and Places
Leadership and Inspiration: EDAB’s Blueprint for Engineering Student Life
To undergraduates at a large university, the administration can seem like a mysterious, all-powerful entity, creating policy that affects their lives but doesn’t always take into account the reality of their day-to-day experience. The Engineering Deans’ Advisory Board (EDAB) was designed to bridge that gap and give students a platform to communicate with key decision makers.
The 13-member board meets once per week for 60 to 90 minutes. The executive board, comprised of four members, also meets weekly to plan out action items and brainstorm. Throughout his interactions with the group, board president Jonathan Chen, (ENG ‘19, W ‘19), has found a real kinship with his fellow board members, who he says work hard and enjoy one another’s company in equal measure.
Bioengineering major Daphne Cheung (ENG’19) joined the board as a first-year student because she saw an opportunity to develop professional skills outside of the classroom. “For me, it was about trying to build a different kind of aptitude in areas such as project management, and learning how to work with different kinds of people, including students and faculty, and of course, the deans,” she says.
Purdue University College of Engineering and Indiana University School of Medicine Team Up in New Engineering-Medicine Partnership
The Purdue University College of Engineering and the Indiana University School of Medicine recently announced a new Engineering-Medicine partnership, that seeks to formalize ongoing and future collaborations in research between the two schools. One highlight of the partnership is the establishment of a new M.D./M.S. degree program in biomedical engineering that will allow medical students at Indiana University to receive M.S.-level training in engineering technologies as they apply to clinical practice. The goal of this new level of collaboration is to further involve Purdue’s engineering program in the medical field, and to exhibit the benefits that developing an engineering mindset can have for medical students. The leadership of this new partnership includes
Heart disease is currently the leading cause of death in the United States, resulting in about 630,000 deaths every year according to the Center for Disease Control. One of the most common side effects of heart disease is damage to blood vessels and cardiac tissue, which can ultimately lead to conditions like high blood pressure, arrhythmia, and even cardiac arrest. In serious cases of irreversible heart damage, often the only option for patients is a full heart transplant, and efforts to engineer vascularized cardiac tissue grafts have proved challenging in research so far.
But researchers Ying Zheng, Ph.D., and Charles Murry, M.D., Ph.D., both of whom have joint appointments in Bioengineering at the University of Washington, have found success in using human microvascular grafts to create working blood vessels in vitro to treat infarcted rat hearts. The new heart muscle, developed from human embryonic stem cell-derived endothelial cells in petri dishes, was grown with a focus on not only being able to easily integrate it in vivo, but also in creating a patch of vasculature that closely mirrored that of the heart. In concentrating more on the mechanical aspects of the blood vessel network, Zheng and Murry were able to better restore normal blood flow to the damaged rat hearts after integration of the grafts. The study appears in a recent edition of Nature Communications.
Another team of bioengineers, led by Michael Sacks, Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, recently invented a software-based method for repairing mitral valves in the heart. Their work, published in the International Journal for Numerical Methods in Biomedical Engineering, uses computational modeling techniques to create a noninvasive way of simulating repairs to the mitral valve, which will allow for a better prediction of surgical procedures and postoperative side effects on a more patient-specific basis. This ability to know which treatment plan may be best-suited for a given patient is important especially for valve repair, as heart valves are notoriously difficult to model or image due to the complexity of their functions. But through the use of advanced technology in 3D echocardiography, Sacks and his team say that their new model is accurate enough to rely on in clinical settings.
Virtual Reality Assists in the Evaluation of Surgery
Any form of surgery is always a high risk procedure, as it is subject to a wide variety of sources of human error and irregularity, even with the best surgeons. Certainly, there should be a system in place to not only continually assess the knowledge of surgeons throughout their careers, but also to evaluate their practices and techniques during operation. Such an evaluation, however, would put patients at risk during the assessment of the surgeon.
But now a team of researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has developed a way of simulating colorectal surgical procedures using virtual reality technology. Suvranu De, Sc.D. — the J. Erik Jonsson ‘22 Distinguished Professor of Engineering and Head of the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Nuclear Engineering with joint appointments in Biomedical Engineering and Information Technology and Web Science —leads the project which incorporates both visual and tactile feedback for users to employ as a tool for both training and evaluating colorectal surgeons. While virtual reality simulators have been used for similar applications related to procedures like the colonoscopy, they have yet to be fully developed for open surgical procedures, because of the difficulties in creating a fully engaged and immersive environment. Nonetheless, De and his team hope that their work will lead to the creation of the first “Virtual Intelligent Preceptor,” which will allow for more advanced technological innovations in aspects of surgical education that have so far been difficult to standardize. Support for the project comes from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NBIB).
Penn BE’s Dr. Bassett on Understanding Knowledge Networks in the Brain
As a network neuroscientist, Danielle Bassett, Ph.D., Eduardo D. Glandt Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor in the Department Bioengineering, brings together insights from a variety of fields to understand how the brain’s connections form and change: mathematics, physics, electrical engineering and developmental biology, to name a few. Bassett’s recent work on the learning process also draws from linguistics, educational theory and other domains even further afield.
The intersection and interaction of knowledge from multiple sources doesn’t just describe Bassett’s methodology; it’s at the heart of her research itself. At the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics’ Annual Meeting last year, Bassett provided an address on how the structure of knowledge networks can influence what our brains can do when it comes to learning new things.
The field of bioengineering is constantly growing, and new programs are always in development. Boise State University has announced the launch of a new doctoral program in bioengineering that will begin in the fall of 2019. Developed through the collaboration of the university’s College of Health Sciences, College of Engineering, Graduate College, and College of Arts and Sciences, this new opportunity to do research in the field of bioengineering will have three study tracks available in biomechanics, mechanobiology, and human performance.
The new biomedical engineering department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has announced the department’s first faculty appointments. The founding department head will be Professor Tammy L. Haut Donahue, Ph.D., whose research focus is on the biomechanics of the musculoskeletal system. Another professor joining the department’s new faculty is Seth W. Donahue, Ph.D., who has also done research in the field of biomechanics, and specifically how it pertains to tissue regeneration.
Since we last posted, there have also been several significant academic appointments in the field of Bioengineering. This week, we would like to congratulate Bruce Tromberg, Ph.D., on his appointment as the director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). Dr. Tromberg is currently a Professor with appointments in Biomedical Engineering and Surgery at the University of California at Irvine, where he leads research in bioimaging and biophotonics. He has also served on the External Advisory Board of NIH P41 Center for Magnetic Resonance and Optical Imaging here at Penn since 2009, and has also given several lectures here on his work in bioimaging.
Secondly, we congratulate the University of Toronto’s Professor Warren Chan, Ph.D., who was recently named as a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Nanobioengineering. Professor Chan, who is also the director of the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto, conducts research in the field of nanotechnology for applications in the treatment and diagnosis of cancer and viral diseases.
And finally, we also want to congratulate Frank Pintar, Ph.D., on his appointment as the Founding Chair of the Marquette University and Medical College of Wisconsin. Dr. Pintar’s research in bioengineering involves the study of the biomechanics involved with brain and spinal cord injury, with a focus on motor vehicle crash trauma.