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Originally published Monday, October 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Alliance may one day aid paralyzed, amputees Building on tech-robotic link

The Northwest's economic future seemed promising Friday, if you were inside a certain conference room at Microsoft's advanced research center in Redmond.

Seattle Times staff columnist

The Northwest's economic future seemed promising Friday, if you were inside a certain conference room at Microsoft's advanced research center in Redmond.

While markets crashed and investors sobbed, certified genius Yoky Matsuoka and 140 of her friends were at the center for a workshop, brainstorming how to make the region a world center for neuroengineering.

Their efforts could make Seattle the hub for developing brain-controlled robotic systems that may someday help amputees, stroke victims and people with spinal-cord injuries. Think of the "Bionic Man" or the prosthetic hands used by Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in "Star Wars."

Matsuoka is researching this sort of thing at the University of Washington. She's also leading efforts to create a research institute — the Pacific Northwest Center for Neural Engineering — focused on the intersection of robotics and neuroscience.

The idea is to form an alliance between academic researchers in different disciplines and companies such as Microsoft, Intel and biotech ventures. Together they're forming a cluster of neurobotic companies in the region.

At least 15 companies, including a few secretive startups, participated in the workshop, the center's first major public event.

"This workshop is really the first announcement saying, 'Hey, check it out. We're doing it; we're getting people together. Did you know there are this many people doing this research and they care about the same thing?' " Matsuoka said.

Among the event's speakers was Eberhard Fetz, a UW professor developing a "recurrent brain interface," which uses a small computer chip that interacts continuously with the brain. It's a step toward implantable chips controlling prosthetic devices.

"It's not realizable now, but in fact it could be, eventually, in the lifetime of some people," Fetz said, discussing these technologies during his Friday keynote address.

Fetz expects the workshop to act as catalyst for the neuroengineering community, but the institute's success will depend on such things as whether it receives funding, leads to productive collaborations and receives UW support.

No matter what, the field is progressing rapidly.

"There's no question that neural engineering is a real frontier in the sense that there's a lot of development of new technologies that can be productively combined with brain issues like treatment of neural disorders, so it's definitely going to happen at an accelerating pace," Fetz said.

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Long-term investment

It's definitely a long-term investment for the region, however.

Seattle's Northstar Neuroscience was an early star in the field but, under pressure from investors, it slashed research and jobs in July. The investors were fed up after Northstar's flagship technology — brain stimulation to help stroke victims — didn't shine in clinical trials.

That didn't scare others from the field.

Microsoft is exploring ways to use brain sensors to minimize interruptions of people while they're working — blocking e-mail if you're busy thinking, for instance. It's also interested in sensors as tools to improve its products and exploring their potential for gaming.

Microsoft also has robotics software designed to quickly process data from numerous sensors.

"Our take on it is how to make these things useful for the masses," said Microsoft researcher Desney Tan, who also serves on the UW faculty.

For Matsuoka, the first step is creating the best possible neuroengineering educational program, so that when "students think about altering brain activities using technology, Seattle will be the very first place they think of."

Among the tasks at the workshop were identifying educational and funding mechanisms, and strengths the region has over other neuroengineering centers.

Matsuoka began assembling the group after she was lured here in 2006 from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, to establish her neurobotics laboratory at the UW's Computer Science and Engineering Department.

MacArthur fellow

She's had a few interruptions. The first was a baby boy — her third child — whose gestation suspended her work through much of 2007.

Another was a MacArthur Fellow "genius" award she received shortly after he was born that September.

The open-ended $500,000 grant led to soul searching. Matsuoka decided to start a new project using her skills to help people immediately, in addition to doing research that will help people 20 or 30 years out.

It's still in the formative stage, but Matsuoka envisions an organization that will tap the capabilities of female engineers and other professionals who left the work force after having children. They could re-engage after having kids by helping create products improving the lives of disabled children.

Inspiration came from outreach Matsuoka has done, asking disabled children to make lists of 10 things they'd like Santa Claus to make for them, if Santa were an engineer. Usually about eight of the things are impossible, but sometimes one or two are things she can build herself, she said.

One idea came from a paralyzed boy in Pittsburgh who said he didn't like going to classes, because the umbrella on his wheelchair didn't keep him dry. She built a device that helps him tilt the umbrella with a joystick.

"I thought this would be a great thing to do on a bigger scale than just myself doing this, one person at a time," she said.

Early collaborator

Among the early collaborators is Rayna Liekwig, a retired IBM manager and mother in Kirkland who contacted Matsuoka out of the blue, after reading about her MacArthur award.

Liekwig said it took three months to get up the nerve to send the e-mail, but Matsuoka was receptive and inspiring.

"She doesn't just talk about stuff; she makes stuff happen, yet she's so humble — she's just an incredible lady," she said.

We'll all be believers if Matsuoka and the Neural Engineering Center deliver even 10 or 20 percent of what they envision.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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