Life-changing research: Just a thought away

Biomedical research by a US-based company is taking being connected through our smart phones to a new level.



Story By

Keeli Cambourne

Biomedical research by a US-based company is taking being connected through our smart phones to a new level. Their brain implant system aims to help those who have lost control of their limbs or other bodily functions.

The “neuro-prosthetic” device – an electrode implanted into the brain creating a brain-computer interface – has been effectively used to enable people with paralysis to perform functions, such as lifting a cup to drink and operating computers, via their thoughts alone.

Now, thanks to a $250,000 scholarship from the Australian Movement Disorder Foundation (MDF), a University of Wollongong student is able to participate in this ground-breaking research and thus bring back to Australia the knowledge and skills that will change the lives of those with physical disabilities.

“The Movement Disorder Foundation Medical Research Scholarship provides support for PhD student, Michelle Newbery, and her research project at the University of Wollongong. This has enabled her training in various laboratory techniques and science communication skills at UOW,” says Associate Professor Lezanne Ooi from the School of Chemistry & Molecular Bioscience.

In an association formed in 2014, the Movement Disorder Foundation has provided the University with philanthropic funding for undergraduate students with a disability, who seek to focus their future career on driving significant advances that can change the lives of those living with a movement disorder. This latest higher degree research scholarship allows Newbery to spend up to a year working closely with Braingate researchers at Brown University. They include Dr David Borton, an Assistant Professor of Engineering at Brown University and Dr Leigh Hochberg, a Neurologist, Professor of Engineering and a Senior lecturer of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, who is working specifically at designing an interface that can interpret messages coming directly from the spinal cord.

“The project aims to address the Movement Disorder Foundation’s goal of improving the lives of people with movement disorders in two distinct ways,” says UOW’s Associate Professor Ooi.

“Firstly, by using stem cells in the lab at UOW to understand how the brain controls movement and how the brain could be ‘rewired’ as a treatment for movement disorders. Secondly, by going to the USA to work with the Braingate team, who are investigating how implantable devices can be used to stimulate movement in people that are paralysed due to spinal cord injury, stroke or motor neurone disease.”

When she returns to Australia, Newbery will spend two-and-a-half years completing the research at University of Wollongong liaising closely with researchers in the US.

“The research will help bring knowledge of how stem cells and implantable devices can be used to restore movement, as well as understanding the mechanisms underlying movement disorders,” Newbery says.

There are a variety of neurological diseases and disorders that show similar characteristics. Therefore, it may be possible to adapt knowledge or treatments we identify to benefit other disorders.

Associate Professor Ooi believes this collaboration is one of the major benefits of the Braingate and MDF funding. “This funding enables the unique opportunity for Michelle to learn from the world experts in wireless implantable neurotechnologies. It will provide Michelle with the incredible opportunity to travel to the USA, study at an Ivy League College and to network and collaborate with international researchers, which would not have been possible without this funding” she says.

Associate Professor Roland Bigg, Chairman of the Movement Disorder Foundation, says one of the Foundation’s philosophies is to collaborate rather than compete.

“With such limited resources, it’s hard to do this kind of research effectively in single isolated research institutions.  And the anticipated outcome of the collaborative research is that eventually people with severe disabilities worldwide will benefit,” he says.

“There are a lot of patients who can benefit from the results of this research and we want an Australian to be able to add to that reservoir of research innovation. Australia benefits not just from the link to researchers in the US but it also means that if there is a treatment breakthrough, Australians will be more able to access treatment.”

“The Movement Disorder Foundation has always had as a guiding philosophy the saying `Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime’,” Associate Professor Bigg says.

“A treatment breakthrough from the Movement Disorder Foundation-funded research may enable severely disabled patients more autonomy in their life, meaning better quality of life for them, and better quality of life for carers. The University of Wollongong is a valuable part of this goal,” he says.

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