Stephen Scott's robot is changing what we know about the brain
When Dr. Stephen Scott, Professor in the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, explains his research, he frequently uses a picture that shows a running back on a football team who is about to run on a diagonal line to his right through a gap in the opposing team’s defense. In the picture, the running back hasn’t yet started to run through the gap, but he is angled towards it. For Dr. Scott, this situation presents an endlessly complicated question: what would happen if the runner suddenly decided to run left instead of right?
He is not interested in this question because of football strategy but rather because of the complex neurological functions that lie behind all voluntary movement. By what process would the runner’s brain make a decision to completely adjust their course? What neural circuits would be involved? And how long, exactly - as in down to the millisecond - would it take?
Dr. Scott’s research focuses on such questions around voluntary movement, and he works in both basic and clinical science. Recently, he has been highly successful in securing funding for both aspects of his work, as he has won four prestigious grants in the past year. For his basic science research, he has obtained two grants from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) as well as a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). He has also recently obtained a grant from the Ontario Research Fund – Research Excellence competition to support his work in developing clinical assessment tools. Taken all together, these four grants total around $6 million in funding over the next five years.
The two sides of his research (basic and clinical), though, are always influencing each other. They are also both partially underpinned by the KINARM robotic platform that he developed. With KINARM, Dr. Scott uses various behavioural tasks to observe how subjects move their arms and interact in a virtual environment to measure neurological functioning. In one task, for example, subjects see a number of objects in the workspace appearing to move toward them. As they see these objects, they must move the arms of the KINARM platform to “hit” the objects.
To an outside observer, it would look as if the subject were playing a video game like Pong. Through these tasks, though, Dr. Scott is able to collect large amounts of information about the sensory, motor and cognitive functioning of those individuals being tested. Moreover, even if the tasks appear simple, they are strategically designed to assess specific aspects of brain function. Over many years, Dr. Scott developed rigorous standards for determining which tasks can provide him and other researchers with valuable information. He now has rules in place that guide him when he seeks to make a new task. For example, tasks have to be short and there has to be a simple way for healthy subjects to respond to them.
In Dr. Scott’s basic science research, the information he gathers from the KINARM tasks helps him understand feedback processes in the brain and which neural circuits control which motor functions. In his clinical science work, the KINARM enables him and other researchers to determine the ways in which various diseases affect the brain.
Dr. Scott and his collaborators have done a good deal of work to measure the impact on the brain of conditions such as strokes, transient ischemic attack, Parkinson’s Disease, ALS, and epilepsy. But he has also collaborated on projects that seek to determine the neurological effects of conditions, like kidney disease, that have not been commonly associated with the nervous system. Through projects like this one, Dr. Scott aims to use KINARM to develop a much fuller picture of the connections between the brain and a variety of illnesses.
Dr. Scott’s academic work has also spawned a commercial venture. To make his KINARM technology available to a wide array of researchers, he manufactures and distributes it through a venture called BKIN Technologies. This commercial side of his work has enabled Dr. Scott to get his innovations into the hands of neuroscientists and clinician-scientists far from Kingston. Currently, there are roughly 100 KINARM robots in 14 countries around the world. By distributing his technology so widely, Dr. Scott is helping researchers conduct objective and quantitative studies of the brain that they would be unable to do otherwise.
Thank you to Andrew Willson for his assistance in preparing this blog.