Research Profile

Interdisciplinary Research Team,

Harnessing the Power of Neurons to Ignite New Technologies

Building on the ingenuity of the past, interconnecting technologies and collaborating across research areas are some of the approaches scientists at UMass Lowell are taking to develop new robotics and artificial intelligence technologies that could improve the lives of wounded soldiers and others.
“We have the chance to manipulate muscle precursors to improve muscle regeneration or formation, for example after a wound or an athletic injury or a car accident or combat casualty wounds, as particular brain signals stimulate the muscle cells better than any artificial method known so far,” says Prof. Thomas Shea, director of the Center for Neurobiology and Neurodegeneration Research.
In the 1980’s, Shea conducted research on brain cells to look at how the brain works. The studies evolved into technology capable of manipulating and recording brain cells resting on a unique 64-electrode powered petri dish. Today, the technology is also being used to bridge new robotics and AI research. Shea is collaborating with Prof. Holly Yanco and Sangmook Lee on a three-year project that will combine the interface of the brain cells in culture wired to a computer (which harnesses the electronic signals that neurons make) with the University’s Robotics systems. 
The project also involves the collaboration with Dartmouth professors who are working on an artificial intelligence and “will interconnect those two technologies.” Shea’s biological neuron circuitry will interpret incoming signals and make a decision of which motion to dictate to Yanco’s robotics. This decision-making process will be compared with that of an artificial neural network (or ANN, an interconnected group of artificial neurons)—a new application in industry for the 21st century that owes some of its discoveries to basic brain cell studies from an earlier era.
Shea says the army is very interested in his team having a direct connection between brain cells, computers and the artificial movement that’s capable of being achieved through robotics. He and his team at UMass Lowell have received $760,000 dollars in funding from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory for the project.