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IU Researcher Working Toward Improved Prosthesis

Computer simulation screenshot. Courtesy of the University of Idaho.

Craig McGowan, PhD, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Idaho (UI), is studying the mechanics of movement so prosthetics manufacturers can create devices that work with the body’s neuromuscular system. With funding from a one-year Murdock Foundation Exceptional Opportunity Grant, McGowan and his students are developing a computer simulation that models how prostheses designed for running interact with the body.

“The long-term goal is to have a device that enables people to have healthy, active lifestyles without pain,” says McGowan, who is also part of UI’s WWAMI Medical Education faculty. WWAMI is a partnership between the University of Washington’s School of Medicine and the states of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho.

Prosthetic running blades, for instance, work like springs, but it’s unknown exactly how an amputee runner’s remaining muscles adapt to controlling the device, or how the runner’s limb interacts with the device’s rigid socket. By studying athletes, McGowan’s team can understand the highest level of performance possible with these devices. “It sets the upper bounds of what people are capable of,” he said. “If we look there, it lets us set a target for what’s possible for other individuals.”

The simulation’s first phase models an able-bodied person using data gathered from real-life runners. McGowan is refining the program so it shows the way muscles are activated and work together, down to the finest detail. “What we have is a plausible solution for how the muscles are driving a human being,” he said. “These are things we can’t measure directly in a human.”

The next step, which is still in progress, is building a simulation of a person with an amputation using a prosthesis. McGowan first modified a general model to remove lost muscle and bone and then added a model of a prosthetic running device. He is now testing this model against data from runners with amputations, the majority of whom are current or former Paralympic athletes.

Some help in creating the simulation also comes from McGowan’s other research projects. McGowan runs UI’s Comparative Neuromuscular Biomechanics Lab, which studies the evolution of musculoskeletal systems. One project studies kangaroo rats to understand how hopping evolved. “It’s remarkable how much of that research translates into these running prostheses…,” McGowan said.

McGowan will refine the simulation enough this year to publish preliminary results, gather data, and apply for longer-term grants.

“While our research has direct implications for otherwise healthy individuals who have suffered limb loss due to injury, our hope is to ultimately be able to help the millions of people who have been affected by diseases such as diabetes, as well,” McGowan said. “Daily exercise can be a powerful tool in mitigating the impact of disease, but you’re not going to exercise if your prosthesis causes you pain.”

This story was adapted from materials written by Tara Roberts and provided by the University of Idaho.