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2006-2007 HIGHLIGHTS

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Cover of the 2007 Annual Report
Annual Report
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Cover of the 2007 College Directory
College Directory
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PAST ANNUAL REPORTS

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Elizabeth Felton and a research subject

MD/PhD student Elizabeth Felton (pictured with a test subject) applied human-factors and ergonomics principles to her study of the ways in which people use brain-computer interface technology. She asked 40 disabled and able-bodied research subjects to complete computer-based tasks, such as using only their thoughts to move a quarter-sized cursor to “fat” targets like the one pictured here. (Large image)

Biomedical Engineering

Brain-computer interface technology
to keep users in mind

Imagine—only imagine that you are clenching your right hand. Now imagine tapping your left foot. Exploiting electrical signals in the brain associated with such motion-related thoughts, researchers are developing technologies that enable people with ALS, spinal muscular atrophy or other severe motor disabilities to communicate and to manipulate their world via computer.

In brain-computer interface technology based on sensorimotor rhythms, research subjects don a snug-fitting cap studded with electrodes. “Executing movement and just imagining executing that movement create similar changes in the brain activity that we can pick up with the electrodes,” says MD/PhD student Elizabeth Felton.

The signal from each electrode corresponds to a defined cursor movement on a computer screen; ultimately, motor-disability patients could use their thoughts to move the cursor and spell words or navigate to choices displayed on the screen.

While the technology itself is exciting, refining the hardware isn’t enough. Rather, for her PhD research, Felton applied human-factors engineering principles to learning how people—both disabled and able-bodied—actually use the sensorimotor rhythm technology.

Her results may illuminate ways to improve everything from the cursor size to the placement of “targets” on the screen. They also may point to more user-friendly system design considerations based on how potential users process information and how much mental effort they require to move the cursor. “All of those things are really important parameters to understand for creating these devices,” says Felton.

Felton’s co-advisors are Professor Robert Radwin and Assistant Professor Justin Williams.

Seven new translational research projects launched

The University of Wisconsin Coulter Translational Research Partnership in Biomedical Engineering oversight committee has selected its second round of research projects for funding.

The Coulter Translational Research Partnership in Biomedical Engineering fosters early-stage collaborations between UW-Madison biomedical engineering researchers and practicing physicians. These collaborations will enable researchers to deliver advances more quickly to patients. The Biomedical Engineering Center for Translational Research promotes and facilitates these collaborative efforts.

The center actively develops partnerships, cultivates new translational research projects based on clinical practice needs, identifies and supports promising biomedical engineering collaborative research projects, and rapidly translates solutions into the clinic by fully using UW-Madison campus resources for technology transfer and commercialization.

Research may yield improved treatment
for diseased lungs

With a grant of nearly $2 million from the National Institutes of Health National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, a multi-institutional team of engineers, scientists and clinicians are studying large-artery biomechanics that could play a role in heart failure in patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension.

Patients who have the disease may have narrowed, thickened pulmonary arteries in which scar tissue accumulates, blood flow is blocked, and tiny blood clots form. There are treatments for pulmonary arterial hypertension; however, there is no cure.

Traditionally, researchers have felt that the disease is tied to narrowing of the small blood vessels that carry oxygen-poor blood from the right ventricle of the heart to the pulmonary arteries in the lungs. Led by Assistant Professor Naomi Chesler, researchers will explore whether stiffening of the pulmonary arteries—much larger conduits—affects ventricular function and contributes to the disease. They also will examine the role of collagen, the body’s ubiquitous fibrous structural protein that strengthens blood vessels, in arterial stiffening.

Chesler’s hypothesis is that excess collagen stiffens both large and smaller vessels. “We’re not addressing that with modern treatments, and so we need to look at effects of stiffness on blood flow patterns and ventricular function in this context,” she says.

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