The Solution is All in Your Head

The story of robotics hasn’t always been a happy one, with countless tales of robots causing an end to humankind However, Dr. Delphine Dean and Dr. David Kwartowitz have put a new spin on the classic tale. Their Creative Inquiry project in the bioengineering department focuses on helping people by using neural signals to control machines.

It all started as a student-led project, dubbed MindBot, that was an attempt to show the public just how far neural technology had progressed and what could be done using cost-effective equipment. But for these bioengineering students the project also provided an outlet for their creative juices to flow. Dr. Dean mentioned, “What makes this project really fun to work on as an advisor is that the whole process was extremely student driven; all the ideas originated from the students, which is why I think the project was so original and ‘out of the box.'” The team drew up a concept design that used cranial electromyograms (EMGs) to direct a two-wheel robot to move forward, backward or to rotate.

The Mindbot was a great success! The team received a grant and is now working on the second phase of the project: to develop a device that’s wirelessly controlled?through a neural headset?to navigate a maze while overcoming physical obstacles.

The project’s potential is vast and far reaching. Joe Connolly, a senior student on the team, explained, “Through this experience, I was allowed to show my project to kids ranging from elementary school to college. CI served as a conduit to allow me to share my passion my the younger generation.” This type of technology could someday be used in anything from helping mobilize quadriplegics to mind-controlled video games to effortless driving.

Team members not only get the satisfaction of knowing that their product may someday be used to help society, but they experience hands-on engineering in the fields of electrical and mechanical design, computer programming and system architecture. They also get a taste of how signal/image processing and psychological feedback work. Connolly commented, “With the help of my fantastic mentors, I had the freedom to work with a diverse team and explore an idea. I applied the concepts I learned through my college experience in a way that interested me the most.”

New team members aren’t expected to know the difference between a PIC and an ARM or how to handle segmentation faults, but if they’re a devoted student ready to learn more in a teamcentric environment, they are perfect for the team. Connolly summed it all up perfectly when he said, “The most rewarding thing I took away from the Creative Inquiry was showing other people the “cool” side of engineering – the side they may not realize exists.

A Fruitful Discovery: Why We Age

In recent years, fruits like the acai berry and pomegranate (coined ‘superfruits’) have been wildly heralded for their numerous health benefits. But what role do such fruits actually play in increasing the human lifespan? Groundbreaking research is being conducted by biological sciences professor Dr. Yuqing Dong, microbiology and molecular medicine professor Dr. Min Cao, and their Creative Inquiry team. They are helping determine whether various natural extracts affect the body’s aging and how they do so. In the process, the group has come upon some startling evidence that points to a link between stress resistance and lifespan.

The team first began its studies on a fruit regarded by many as one of the healthiest, the cranberry. This berry is known to protect the body from oxidative stress; that is, the generation of compounds created through our metabolism that are hazardous to our DNA and protein molecules. Could cranberry extract also have anti-aging implications? The team investigates how this and other high potential natural extracts could have life extending effects. Along with the cranberry, the Creative Inquiry team is looking at noni, a Hawaiian fruit that contains even more antioxidants than cranberries, and royal bee jelly, a substance fabled for its anti-aging effects.

Although the research team’s goal is human application, for now Dr. Dong and his students are studying Caenorhabditis elegans or the nematode worm. The short lifespan of the nematode, only two to three weeks, makes it the ideal organism for aging studies. The worm’s genome may only be 40 percent similar to the human genome, but 60-70 percent of its genes are expressed the same as in humans, making it an applicable model for most situations. For example, even Alzheimer’s disease has been studied in the nematode worm.

Nematodes obtain the nutrients of the extracts in a way any other worm would: they simply eat them! One of the three natural extracts is incorporated into the nutrient-rich substance that the nematodes live. The worms then consume this extract-ingrained media for six days, from hatchling to young adult. The researchers record their overall lifespan and compare differences.

Break out the turkey and cranberry sauce because the results are promising. The cranberry extract increased the average worm lifespan by about 40 percent and royal jelly increased lifespan by roughly 25 percent. The noni fruit extract study remains incomplete, although it seems to have similar effects.

Perhaps the most astonishing part of the results is that the increase in longevity was correlated with an augmented ability to resist a stressor. The cranberry extract not only increased lifespan, but it increased heat shock resistance as well. The worm normally lives at 25°C, but if exposed to temperatures 35°C or more, its heat shock resistance mechanism kicks in. This protection comes from proteins that help the body adjust to the consequences of high temperatures. Normally, nematodes can only live a half-hour in such warm conditions, but after being treated with cranberry extract, the nematodes could stand the heat for nearly twice that time. Initial results suggest that the natural extracts are also involved in the protection from various stressors, such as UV radiation and extreme cold, indicating that the secret to a long life may be due to a strong defense against stressors.

In 2012, the project has expanded its horizons. Dr. Dong puts it, “Humans do not follow the same habits throughout their whole lives. Young people don’t care what they eat, but when they get older, they start consuming healthy foods. We want to see if we can replicate that in our experiment.” The team is analyzing the effect the extracts have when given to the nematodes at different points of their lives. “Does it increase their lifespan more when the extract is given to them the last week of their lives or the first week?” This new part of the study aims to identify at what point in life such extracts have the strongest effect.

Along the way, the team is discovering new things about these special extracts. Cranberry extract not only has anti-aging implications, but the Creative Inquiry team has shown that it also has anti-microbial properties. It appears to slow the growth of some pathogens, such as salmonella.
It is not clear if all ‘superfruit’ or antioxidant-rich foods augment longevity, but Dr. Yuqing Dong and his Creative Inquiry team have provided substantial evidence demonstrating that at least some increase lifespan by supporting stress resistance. Who needs one of those expensive wrinkle-fighting creams when you can drink a glass of ice-cold cranberry juice?

Matters of the Heart: They Don’t Miss a Beat

Your pulse is racing and you can feel your heartbeat resonating through your chest. The emergency room doctors hurriedly push you down the cold hallway, trying to hide the panic on their faces. When a patient is lying in the hospital with a serious heart condition, the last thing they need to worry about is the extent of the doctor’s training. Therefore, it is vital for doctors to practice their techniques before interacting with live patients. A team of bioengineering Creative Inquiry students, led by Dr. David Kwartowitz, is working to create an electrocardiogram (EKG) simulation device based on biological signals in the human body. They plan to use the device for training and evaluation purposes.

An EKG is the typical method used to collect data about electrical activity in the heart. Patients are often closely monitored during surgeries to ensure a healthy beat is maintained. However, it is necessary to have a working system that collects the data from the EKG and sends it to a computer for further analysis. This information can be used to diagnose a number of health issues, including heart attacks and heart arrhythmias – which are caused by problems in the electrical impulses that create heartbeats. These issues cause a fast, slow or irregular pulse in the patient.

Amanda Nguyen, a junior on the team, explained, “Working on the EKG Simulation and Modeling Creative Inquiry project has provided me the invaluable opportunity to gain hands-on experience with designing electrical circuits. During the process I learned a lot about the practicalities of electrical circuit design that I would not have been able to gain otherwise.”

The Creative Inquiry team focused on two main goals. First, they designed a system to process the EKG signals. Then, they created a human-like dummy for the simulation. The materials used in the dummy were produced to resemble the texture of human tissue, which creates a realistic environment when operating the EKG system.

This EKG simulation will be used for both teaching and training purposes. The simplistic yet realistic nature of the system allows it to be utilized in a number of settings, from elementary schools to medical training evaluations. As children are taught about the human body and EKG signals, they can visualize the process using the interactive dummy. The kids will be able to physically manipulate the simulation in a hands-on approach to understand exactly how an EKG works. They will also be able to listen to hearts that have abnormalities, like arrhythmias, to engage them in the material and help them better grasp the concept.

Professional medical trainees can utilize the simulation due to the realistic and reliable nature of the system. Doctors will be able to learn, experiment, and evaluate their work on the model. The team created an EKG unit that efficiently filters out electrical potential changes in the heart and amplifies them, which allows doctors to better understand what is taking place in the patient from a safe distance. Nguyen noted, “It has been incredibly rewarding to be able to apply the knowledge I have gained in lecture to produce a working EKG.”

Through creating an advanced electrocardiogram system, this Creative Inquiry team will impact both the educational and medical fields. This versatile project benefits a wide array of people in a variety of situations. The team is breaking down the science of simulations – one heartbeat at a time!