Helen Huang

Title: Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering

Expertise: neural and rehabilitation engineering, human-centered computing, biomedical cyber-physical system, human motor control, orthotics and prosthetics

Almost all of the lower limb prostheses on the market today are passive devices that generate movement through the motion of the user’s body. They are awkward when transitioning from level ground to stairs, or navigating rough terrain. URI Engineering Professor Helen Huang has a better, bigger idea. She wants to create a powered artificial leg that can accurately read neuromuscular control signals from the user’s brain to anticipate movements and respond accordingly to prevent stumbles.

Her big idea has won her a prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation and additional funding from the National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, and the Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council. She’s studied able-bodied individuals as well as those using prosthetic legs to identify and analyze physiological signals and other streams of information from the prosthesis, the user and the environment. With that data, she’s developed an algorithm she believes will help a robotic prosthesis interpret user intent and give them better control. Soon, she plans to take that one step further – to an active stumble-detection system that would help users recover safely from slips and trips.

Her invention could improve the quality of life for thousands. The Veterans Health Administration alone performs about 5,000 lower-limb amputations each year, and at least 1,000 service members have suffered lower limb amputee injuries in the current military conflicts. And then there are thousands of other amputees treated outside the military health system each year. She’s already fielding interest from medical device makers, but for her, the research is not about dollars and cents. It’s about improving lives.

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