Award-winning professor uses robotics to help those with neuromuscular disorders
Carlo Menon, assistant professor in the SFU School of Engineering, has been awarded two major grants for his work developing a robotic device that could allow people suffering from neuromuscular disorders to regain control of their upper extremities.
Menon has won both the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Career Investigator Award and the Canadian Institute of Health Research New Investigator Award for his research in biomedical robotics. Both awards will allow him to work on an Interactive Wearable Robotic Device (IWRD) designed to improve quality of life for those who have lost neurological control of their arms and hands, due to stroke, injury, aging or disease.
Menon wants the device to provide both assistance—allowing people to perform tasks such as holding and lifting—and rehabilitation—helping to “rewire” the brain in order to regain lost neuromuscular functions. For the rehabilitative aspect of this research, Menon is collaborating with Lara Boyd, a physiotherapist and neuroscientist with the Department of Physiotherapy at UBC.
This type of rehabilitation relies on the concept of brain plasticity—the idea that when one part of the brain is damaged, new neural pathways can be formed to compensate for the loss. So, if an individual, who has lost the ability to move her arm, thinks of moving her arm while using the robotic device to move it, her brain can learn to make the connection, using visual information and signals from the arm to the brain. The IWRD will ideally be small and portable, so that people can use it at home, with little or no training.
Menon describes his field of expertise, biorobotics, as merging the natural world with robotics: “learning from human beings and animals to develop technology, and using that technology to help humans.” Work in Menon’s SFU lab, the MENRVA Research Group, includes both main branches of biorobotics: biomedical robotics, the use of robots to assist nature, and biomimetics, designing robots inspired by nature.
An example of biomimetics is the gecko-inspired climbing robot (developed at MENRVA by SFU PhD student, Jeff Krahn. Menon is also working on creating artificial muscles inspired by nature. In the future, he hopes to see fibres that mimic the behaviour of muscles used in his IWRD, merging biomedical robotics and biomimetics to create a lightweight, easily wearable device.