‘Popping in’ on the latest research

A young man’s hand move­ments and body tem­per­a­ture are being tracked as he ges­tic­u­lates while dis­cussing his research with another stu­dent. Else­where in the room, someone stares at a com­puter screen while wearing a cap con­nected to dozens of elec­trodes. Next to him, someone else han­dles a cup out­fitted with an internal gyroscope.

This was the scene in Raytheon Amphithe­ater on Monday evening at Northeastern’s third Pop Up Open Lab Expe­ri­ence & Recep­tion, where the uni­ver­sity com­mu­nity had the oppor­tu­nity to put some of the per­sonal and inter­ac­tive health devices being devel­oped in North­eastern labs to the test.

The open labs, spon­sored by the Office of the Provost, bring the North­eastern com­mu­nity together to learn about col­leagues’ research in an informal and inter­ac­tive set­ting. The events can also spark new, inter­dis­ci­pli­nary edu­ca­tion and research ini­tia­tives and collaborations.

Mechan­ical and indus­trial engi­neering asso­ciate pro­fes­sors Andrew Gould­stone and Rifat Sipahi dis­played a device that aims to help patients with Parkinson’s dis­ease handle a cup full of liquid with more ease and con­trol. The pro­to­type cup con­tains a gyro­scope in its base that off­sets the direc­tional force of the tremor in a patient’s hand. The team is also working on other devices to help Parkinson’s patients, including var­ious tech­nolo­gies to improve their ability to write, Sipahi explained.

Maciej Pietrusinski, a post­doc­toral researcher in mechan­ical and indus­trial engi­neering pro­fessor Dinos Mavroidis’ lab, is devel­oping a much larger device to help stroke patients regain their ability to walk with a normal gait. The cur­rent therapy is very labor and resource inten­sive and requires at least two phys­ical ther­a­pists, he said. Yet his treadmill-based robotic gait reha­bil­i­ta­tion system allows patients to get the ben­e­fits of a therapy ses­sion in their own homes, any time of day.

Phys­ical impair­ments, though, aren’t the only areas where health tech­nolo­gies are valu­able. Per­sonal health infor­matics PhD can­di­date Miriam Zisook is working with Matthew Goodwin, pro­fessor of health sci­ences and com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ences, to under­stand the non­verbal cues gen­er­ated by autistic chil­dren. Zisook explained that these patients’ frus­trated attempts at com­mu­ni­ca­tion are often mis­taken as vio­lent mis­be­havior. So if the behav­iors an autistic child uses to get someone’s atten­tion could be iden­ti­fied ear­lier, per­haps they’d be less likely to esca­late into “acting out.”

Goodwin’s lab uses sen­sors to mon­itor repet­i­tive motion, body tem­per­a­ture and other non­verbal indi­ca­tors of stress, which can be used for both research pur­poses and in the devel­op­ment of com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools like those Zisook envisions.

Deniz Erdogmus’ lab develops brain com­puter inter­faces to help locked-in patients com­mu­ni­cate with the power of their minds. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering pro­fessor Deniz Erdogmus’ lab is also inter­ested in com­mu­ni­ca­tion devices. His group develops brain com­puter inter­faces to help locked-in patients spell out sen­tences and interact with the world, a task that would oth­er­wise be impossible.

This new era of health­care tech­nology also has the unique capacity to pro­mote well­ness among the healthy. Com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ences pro­fessor Tim­othy Bick­more develops vir­tual health advo­cates to pro­mote pos­i­tive behavior across demo­graphics, with a par­tic­ular eye toward those with lim­ited health and com­puter lit­eracy. Stephen Intille, pro­fessor of health sci­ences and com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ences, uses real-time sen­sors and hand­held mobile devices to build appli­ca­tions that pro­mote exer­cise and healthy eating.

From helping a Parkinson’s dis­ease patient who is strug­gling with tremors to making it easier for those hoping to lose weight after the hol­i­days, the event made it clear there is much to gain from the next gen­er­a­tion of health­care technology.