A multidisciplinary group of researchers and physicians has been gathering on the University of Minnesota campus to discuss an area experiencing explosive scientific growth: neurorobotics.

Called the Neurorobotics Research Consortium, the group builds on the work done at the university with the Brain Aneurysm Research Consortium. “We brought everyone together on campus who was doing brain aneurysm research for monthly meetings and have developed projects that are beginning to evolve,” explained Neurosurgery Department Assistant Professor Andrew Grande, MD (and co-founding member of both groups). “We are applying that same concept to neurorobotics.”

Putting the U at the forefront
Joining Grande in leading the consortium are Tim Kowalewski, MS, PhD, Assistant Professor, Mechanical Engineering; and Jürgen Konczak, PhD, Professor, Biomechanics and Neuromotor Control. One of the group’s goals is to make U of M a leading epicenter for research and development in this field.

First, they must define what neurorobotics means to them. “Through my own lens, neurorobotics encompasses robots that assist with neurosurgery, but we recognize that it can be much more,” Grande said.

Intersection of robotic science & neuroscience
From Kowalewski’s perspective, neurorobotics encompasses the intersection of robotic science and neuroscience. “That’s been made possible recently because both fields have advanced to the point where they can overlap” he said. “It’s an exciting time because it enables each discipline to grow in new ways.”

Konczak’s definition of neurorobotics (and his work in the field) focuses on neurological rehabilitation. “The devices we’ve created aren’t robots per se, they are more like exoskeletons,” he said. “For example, we developed a device that externally moves the wrist and hand. One of the issues for stroke and spinal cord injury patients is controlling their hands. These are robotic machines that provide the necessary force these patients lack.” In doing so, it helps the patient’s brain develop new circuitry for regaining at least some of the movement they lost as a result of the stroke or spinal cord injury.

The group has been funded by the U’s Institute of Engineering in Medicine and by the Robotics, Sensors and Advanced Manufacturing research area of MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research, and InnoVation Economy). The money is being used to get the group together for regular “collisions,” as Grande describes them, and to bring in speakers from outside the U of M.

First "collision"
Jeff Krichmar, PhD, Professor of Cognitive Sciences in the School of Social Sciences at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), was the first of those speakers. He heads the Cognitive Anteater Robotics Laboratory at UCI (the anteater is the unversity’s mascot).

According to his UCI bio, Krichmar has nearly 20 years’ experience designing adaptive algorithms, creating neurobiologically plausible network simulations, and constructing brain-based robots whose behavior is guided by neurobiologically inspired models. He has written more than 100 publications and holds 7 patents.

“Our lab makes neuro networks that are based on the brain – how it’s wired, how it responds to things,” Krichmar said. “This artificial brain needs some sort of body, so we put it in a robot, using the brain to guide the robot’s behavior and run it through a number of experiments. It’s a powerful tool to help us understand how the brain/body connection works.”

Mutually enriching
Visiting the U of M was mutually enriching for Krichmar. “I like to get opportunities to talk about what we do and learn about what others are doing,” he said. “Seeing the integration of the medical school with engineering on campus was wonderful. I also had the chance to meet some U of M students, which is always fun.”

An example of the integration that Krichmar noticed is known as a soft catheter robot, a project of Kowalewski’s team. “We recently received a National Science Foundation grant for soft robotics to explore these things,” said Kowalewski. He is partnering with an eclectic group of scientists that includes Chris Ellison, PhD, and Lorraine Francis, MS, PhD, from Chemical Engineering and Material Science, James Van de Ven, PhD, from Mechanical Engineering, and Emmanuel Detournay, PhD, of Civil Engineering.

How do they all connect with neuroscience? It started with tree roots. “The proposal was to learn how things burrow underground,” said Kowalewski. “Plant roots are very intelligent and have figured out how to burrow deep into hard, compact soil, even concrete. What we’re trying to do is learn from how they do that and scale it down into a tiny soft robot that can burrow into cancer cells or a clot in a blood vessel with the neurosurgeon’s guidance.”

Future speakers will inspire the consortium in even more ways. They include:

  • Fred Moll, MD, who helped develop minimally invasive tools and platforms, including the da Vinci system for robot-assisted surgical procedures, and the CyberKnife, a precision radiation robot for treating brain tumors
  • Garnet Sutherland, MSc, MD, of the University of Calgary’s Department of Clinical Neurosciences. His team developed an image-guided MRI-compatible robotic system called neuroArm, which evolved into the Symbis Robot System
  • Radiation oncologist Igor Barani, MD, director of the Barrow Artificial Intelligence Center, is scheduled to speak to the group about the AI infrastructure he created within a 40-hospital healthcare system
  • Bret Wahl and Dave Simonson from Medtronic will talk about the company’s interest in neurosurgical robotics.

“This year is all about defining what neurorobotics is, getting the group together on a regular basis, creating excitement, and then trying to identify a few projects to work on,” said Grande.

Kowalewski is excited about the Neurorobotic Research Consortium’s potential. “It brings together in one room people who would normally never talk to one another,” he said. “I can work with a neurosurgeon and someone from geomechanics and within ten minutes we can come up with a strategy to treat a brain tumor that none of us would have developed individually. What’s remarkable is the deep knowledge in these fields, which have been established for decades, if not centuries. Now, there is an opportunity because of the connection between neuroscience and robotics to leverage all these resources and funnel their knowledge into neurological care.”