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Brain/Machine Interfaces

Our research in Brain/Machine Interfaces (BMI) focuses on development of novel approaches for enabling subjects to move neurorobotic assistive devices based on neural activity to overcome paralytic lesions following spinal cord injury. These studies are also revealing fundamental principles about how cortical circuits process sensory information to generate movements. Many of our faculty members in this area work closely with colleagues at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in highly collaborative endeavors.

Labs in This Research Area

 Charles Heckman Lab

Investigating the mechanisms of motor output the spinal cord in both normal and disease states

Research Description

Neurons in the spinal cord provide the neural interface for sensation and movement. Our lab focuses on the mechanisms of motor output in both normal and disease states (spinal injury, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). We use a broad range of techniques including intracellular recordings, array recordings of firing patterns, 2-photon imaging, pharmacological manipulations, and behavioral testing. These techniques are applied in in vitro and in vivo animal preparations. In addition we have extensive collaborations with colleagues who study motor output in human subjects.

For lab information and more, see Dr. Heckman's faculty profile.


See Dr. Heckhman's publications on PubMed.


Contact Dr. Heckman at 312-503-2164.

Lab Staff

Research Faculty

Matthieu Chardon, Mingchen Jiang, Michael Johnson, Katharina Quinlan, Thomas Sandercock

Postdoctoral Fellows

Obaid Khurram, Amr Mahrous, Jack Miller, Gregory Pearcey

Graduate Students

Seoan Huh, Edward Kim, Christopher MullensEmily Reedich, Theeradej Thaweerattanasinp, Jessica Wilson

Technical Staff

Rebecca Cranmer

Visiting Scholar

Matheus Gomes, Hojeong Kim

 Lee E. Miller Lab

Understanding the nature of the somatosensory and motor signals within the brain that are used to control arm movements

Research Description

The primary goal of the research in my lab is to understand the nature of the somatosensory and motor signals within the brain that are used to control arm movements. Most of the experiments in my laboratory rely on multi-electrode arrays that are surgically implanted in the brains of monkeys. These “neural interfaces” allow us to record simultaneously from roughly 100 individual neurons in the somatosensory and motor cortices and thereby study the brain’s own control signals as the monkey makes reaching and grasping movements. We can also pass tiny electrical currents through the electrodes to manipulate the natural neural activity and study their effect on neural activity and the monkey’s behavior.

Current projects seek to understand:

  1. How motor cortical activity leads to the complex patterns of muscle contractions needed to produce movement
  2. How movement of the limb and forces exerted by the hand are “encoded” in the activity of neurons in the somatosensory cortex

We also study how these relations are affected by behavioral context: the magnitude and dynamics of exerted forces, the varied requirements for sensory discrimination, and the quality of the visual feedback that is provided to the monkey to guide its movements.

Along with this basic research, we can use these neural interfaces to bypass the peripheral nervous system, in order to connect the monkey’s brain directly to the outside world. We are developing neural interfaces that ultimately will use signals recorded from the brain to allow patients who have lost a limb to operate a prosthetic limb. The interface may also be used to bypass a patient’s injured spinal cord in order to restore voluntary control of their paralyzed muscles. Conversely, electrical stimulation of the brain will restore the sense of touch and limb movement to patients with limb amputation or spinal cord injury. This highly interdisciplinary work is enabled by numerous collaborations at Northwestern University and other institutions.

For lab information and more, see Dr. Miller's faculty profile and lab website.


See. Dr. Miller's publications on PubMed.


Contact Dr. Miller at 312-503-8677.

Lab Staff

Postdoctoral Fellows

Kyle Blum, Ali Farshchian, Xuan Ma, Fabio Rizzoglio

Graduate Students

Ege Altan, Min Park, Joseph Sombeck, Chris VerSteeg

Technical Staff

Kevin Bodkin, Eric Gasper, Juliet Heye, Ben Semel, Nikolay Stoykov, Josie Wallner

Undergraduate Student

Nathan Schimpf

Temporary Staff

Qiwei Dong, David Hudetz

 Ferdinando A. Mussa-Ivaldi Lab

Investigating the sensory-motor system through a close interaction with artificial systems

Research Description

Our laboratory (the Robotics Lab at RIC) investigates the sensory-motor system through a close interaction with artificial systems. Specifically, we are interested in determining how the brain acquires, organizes and executes motor behaviors. We use robotic and interface technologies to investigate how humans adapt to radical changes in the environment and in body mechanics.

Consistent evidence indicates that the nervous system is capable of coping with changes in the body and in the environment by developing internal representations of the relationship between movement commands  and their sensory consequences. In this sense, motor learning is not only about improving performance. Motor learning is a means by which our brain develops an understanding of the physical and statistical properties of the world.  We are studying the basic properties of this learning process and how it may be exploited to facilitate rehabilitation. Other studies within our group are directed at facilitating bidirectional communications between the human body and artificial instruments, such as wheelchairs and computers. We wish to combine the biological mechanisms of learning with machine learning algorithms for reducing the burden that disabled people must currently endure for the efficient operation of systems such as powered wheelchairs and other assistive devices. In a nutshell: we want to create systems that learn and adapt to their users.

Understanding how the brain controls motor behavior is of clinical interest since alterations in neuromotor control due to stroke and other neurological impairments can severely limit motor function. Through our research we wish to create knowledge that can help restore motor functions in individuals with neurological disorders.

For lab information and more, see Dr. Mussa-Ivaldi's faculty profile.


See Dr. Mussa-Ivaldi's publications on PubMed.

Contact Us

Contact Dr. Mussa-Ivaldi at 312-238-1230 or the Robotics Lab at 312-238-1232.

Postdoctoral Fellows

Dalia De Santis, Ali Farshchiansadegh, Fabio Rizzoglio

Graduate Students

Elias Thorp