UNO researchers study use of prosthetic limbs and neural activity


Grant Rohan

Jorge Zuniga, Ph.D, and four-year-old Rue Gillespie stock blocks as part of a prosthetic limb study. Photo courtesy of UNO Communications

Researchers within the UNO Department of Biomechanics have been granted funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study how the brain adapts to the use of 3D printed prosthetic limbs.

Leading the study are Jorge Zuniga, Ph.D., associate professor of biomechanics and Brian Knarr, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomechanics at UNO. Funded by a nearly $1.4 million NIH Research Project Grant, (R01) their research will study changes in neural activity in children after the usage of a 3D printed prosthetic arm.

Knarr said he is hopeful that prolonged use can allow for positive results to be studied.

“We hope to find, through wearable sensors coupled with the prosthetic arm, that children who use the prosthesis more often will show a greater change in their brain activity,” Knarr said.

In the study, researchers record a base reading of the brain’s activity through a set of non-invasive sensors placed on the head. Participants must then complete simple activities including lifting and stacking blocks, all while aided with the use of a prosthetic arm.

Over the course of the next eight weeks, participants are encouraged to use the prosthesis in their everyday life to establish a cognitive change. Participants then return to UNO’s Biomechanics Research Building to perform the same activities and gather data. Researchers then compare changes in brain activity after adapting to the use of the prosthesis.

Four-year old Rue Gillespie is a participant in the study. With the help of a custom-fitted, brightly colored prosthetic arm, she can now ride a bike and perform similar activities that would be deemed impossible with only one arm.

Rue’s mother, Holly, said she was “blown away” by the amount of support from the Department of Biomechanics faculty.

“It’s been such a blessing to us to be with UNO and to realize, hey, there are a lot of kids like her – whether it’s arm or leg or some type of thing – knowing that there are people out there who really want to help,” she said.

Zuniga uses his past research with fellow University of Nebraska scholars to create 3D printable prosthetic limbs – particularly arms. Their research allows for prosthetic limbs for children to be 3D printed for as little as $50, compared to the normal price range of $4,000 to $20,000.

“This is the third major federal grant for UNO’s Department of Biomechanics since the beginning of the academic year, demonstrating to our donors that we deliver on our promises made in our building expansion dedication for continuing success and growth,” said Nicholas Stergiou, Ph.D., assistant dean of the Division of Biomechanics and Research Development.

“This R01 also shows that our faculty, Jorge and Brian this time, are fantastic researchers and their ideas are selected for funding at the highest level.”