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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. Heckman's publications on PubMed.


Contact Dr. Heckman at 312-503-2164.

Research Faculty: Matthieu Chardon, Mingchen Jiang, Michael JohnsonThomas Sandercock

Postdoctoral Fellows: Amr Mahrous, Jack Miller, Gregory Pearcey

Graduate Students: Seoan Huh, Edward KimEmily Reedich, Theeradej Thaweerattanasinp, Jessica Wilson

Technical Staff: Rebecca Cranmer

 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.

Postdoctoral Fellows: Xuan Ma, Fabio Rizzoglio

Technical Staff: Kevin BodkinHenry Powell

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