Northern Arizona University’s new Human Performance Lab is a collaborative effort that is making other universities around the country envious.
The new lab contains a motion capture system, similar to the ones used by theaters to create computer-generated movies, a high-tech treadmill that can measure the force of a footfall and remote sensors that can stream information about muscle movements in real time to a computer.
The lab will be used by five or six different departments for research and study, including students in the university’s physical therapy classes, the biomechatronics lab and the Center for Bioengineering Innovations, said Kiisa Nishikawa, the director of NAU’s Center for Bioengineering Innovation.
For example, students in physical therapy professor Tarang Jain’s classes will be able to use the treadmill and other equipment in the lab to help patients who may have had a stroke or have Parkinson’s disease or a runner who may have injured themselves.
The treadmill, which is sunk into the floor, has two belts that can run at different speeds and can be adjusted for someone who is weaker on one side of their body, Jain said. It also has force plates under the belts that register how much force a person is exerting on either side of their body when they walk, run or jump.
The motion capture system uses a series of reflective dots taped to a person’s body and a series of cameras positioned around the top of the room to record movements of the human body, he said. This can help students find differences in a person’s gait or stance that may be causing them pain.
The remote sensors can be attached to the body and tell a student how the muscles in a patient’s body are working or not working, Jain said. This can help students identify areas were muscles are weaker and may need strengthening.
For professor Zachary Lerner, the equipment is a way of testing his and his students’ exoskeleton prototypes. Lerner, who runs the university’s Biomechatronics Lab, creates custom-built electronic exoskeletons to help children with cerebral palsy and other neuromuscular disabilities walk better.
Lerner said the lab will help him and his students study the mechanics of the human body and improve the way they design and craft an exoskeleton. It can also help them understand how their patients’ body works before, during and after wearing the device.
The exoskeletons are designed to help the children with rehabilitation and physical therapy, as well as help them to get around the community, he said. The youngest patient they are currently working with is 5-year-old. Making a product that can fit a person that small and still be light enough for the child to carry easily is difficult.
Nishikawa’s department specializes in creating motorized lower limb prostheses. The new lab can help them understand the mechanics and the forces used by the muscles in the lower limbs, said Anthony Hessel, who works in Nishikawa’s department. This can help them develop and improve the software they use to program the motors they use in their powered BiOM T2 prostheses. They can also test their products out in the lab to see the results.
The idea behind the BiOM T2 is to improve the balance and stability of people who need a lower limb prosthetic, Hessel said. The programing is designed to mimic the way the muscles, which are no longer there, would react while walking over rough terrain or the way the muscles compensate when you step off a curb wrong.
The lab has also been used by high school seniors from Flagstaff Arts and Leadership as part of their senior dance project. The students used the lab’s motion capture and remote sensors to study the forces on a dancer’s body while in movement.
Funding for the more than $300,000 lab came from three different colleges and five different departments within the university, Nishikawa said. Some colleges even donated money from their salaries to get the lab up and running. They also received donations from outside sponsors.
Fundraising and work on the lab took about two years to complete, she said. The various departments that use the lab also hope to partner with local medical facilities and businesses in the community to do more research. Nishikawa also hopes the new lab will attract new talent to the university.