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(Last updated 2/20/06)



By Pam Frost Gorder

Robotics engineer James Schmiedeler may be a self-described "hardware guy," but the National Science Foundation (NSF) has just awarded him $500,000 to delve into the software side of the human brain.

James Schmiedeler

Schmiedeler, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, will use the funds from his Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award to study how the brain plans movement, and how a stroke damages a person's motor skills. He will use what he learns to develop a robot to aid patients' physical rehabilitation.

Every movement requires flawless cooperation between the brain and body. The brain has to plan a movement and the muscles have to execute it. Doctors know that a stroke damages brain cells, but they can't tell exactly how the damage impacts brain function. When a stroke impairs someone's motors skills, it's not easy to tell if the injury happened to the part of the brain that plans the motion, or the part that tells the muscles how to execute it, Schmiedeler explained.

"The analogy I like to use is a musician learning a new piece of music," he said. "A piano player will sight-read a piece and play it slowly until they get the fingering sequence correct -- that's the planning stage. Then, once they know the music, they'll increase the speed until they can play it at the right tempo -- that's the implementation of the plan."

Whether a stroke has impaired the planning or implementation parts of the brain ultimately affects what kind of physical therapy will do the most good, Schmiedeler said.

"We'd like the robot to track how much the person has improved and provide less assistance over time, so that by the end, the person would be moving on their own."

He'll create a mathematical model of motor coordination, and then collaborate with the university's Division of Physical Therapy and Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation to develop a robot based on that model.

The CAREER award recognizes a young researcher's dual commitment to scholarship and education. One graduate student and two undergraduate students have contributed to Schmiedeler's project so far, and the new funds will enable him to hire more.

A framework for one prototype robot sits on a tabletop in Schmiedeler's Ackerman Road lab. Right now, it's an unassuming box with a handle that slides around on rollers, but he envisions that people will one day be able to grip the handle and try to hit light-up targets as if they are playing a game of air hockey. The robotic handle will sense stroke victims' irregular movements and correct them at first.

"We'd like it to track how much the person has improved and provide less assistance over time, so that by the end, the person would be moving on their own," he said. If the tabletop robot proves successful over the course of this five-year project, Schmiedeler may develop a floor model to aid walking.

Such devices would aid physical therapists as well, by allowing them to precisely measure a patient's progress.

The CAREER award honors teachers and scholars who are likely to become academic leaders in the future. Since 1996, NSF has given the award to faculty who effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their institution.

Ohio State now boasts 43 CAREER winners.