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Q&A Wendelken: Oklahoma native works on developing prosthetics that talk to the brain

Oklahoma City — An Oklahoma City native was part of a research team developing a prosthetic hand that allows the user to feel and perform complex tasks.

Suzanne Wendelken, a Casady School graduate, worked on a research team at the University of Utah while pursuing her doctorate in bioengineering.

Bioengineering involves applying traditional engineering skills to solve problems in living things. For example, other researchers at the University of Utah are studying whether a sticky substance produced by fly larvae could be used to close surgical incisions, and if a patient's body could be made to produce more blood cells after a serious injury, reducing the need for transfusions.

The prosthetics Wendelken worked on are designed to send signals to a person's remaining nerves, and to accept signals from the brain in much the way that a healthy limb would. Initial test subjects have reported that they could feel sensations through the device, and that it was easier to use than a traditional prosthetic.

Wendelken recently completed her doctorate and is going to medical school, also at the University of Utah. She hopes to use what she's learned in her research to examine whether electrodes placed on the skin could be as effective as those placed inside the body, which would make it easier to use them in prosthetics or other applications, like pain control.

She spoke to The Oklahoman while home for the holidays. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you get involved in doing this kind of research?

A: I was working as a bioengineer in Boston, doing some development, and I decided at a certain point I wanted to go back to grad school, and the University of Utah had a great program in neuroengineering (bioengineering that works with the nervous system). I thought that was a really cool topic and one of the next big things in bioengineering. … The first project I worked on there was actually a visual prosthesis, where we had implants in the brain to generate images. And then the focus of my research became actually doing the control system for a prosthetic for amputees who have lost a hand, or a part of their upper limb.

Q: Tell me a bit about the technical problems or challenges.

A: It's definitely been a work in progress. … We have these teeny-tiny electrodes that fit on a 4-millimeter-by-4-millimeter chip (a standard pencil eraser is about 5 millimeters wide). They're very small and they're very fragile, so some of the problems are around making that part more robust in the arm. It's kind of a tough environment for those teeny-tiny electrodes to be in the nerves. … And then we're also figuring out how to speak to the brain and the nerves in a language that the brain understands. We have to figure out how to stimulate the nerves to make it feel natural.

Q: What still needs to happen before these could become widely available?

A: Because it's an implant, we need to figure out how to make a wireless system, because right now, wires actually go through the skin to connect to a computer that does all of the processing. There are companies that are working on making it a wireless system, but it's not yet wireless. … Another thing will be just the longevity of the device in the arm or in the periphery. Like I said, the electrodes are very small and delicate, so making that device robust is a thing that needs to happen before it gets out into the mainstream. And finally, it's just the prosthetics itself are very expensive, so making it affordable is going to be the big hurdle to overcome.

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<p>Suzanne Wendelken</p>

Suzanne Wendelken

<figure><img src="//" alt="Photo - Suzanne Wendelken " title=" Suzanne Wendelken "><figcaption> Suzanne Wendelken </figcaption></figure>
Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›