Biomedical careers blend electronics with the body for medical breakthroughs

Andrew Genge of Oshawa was 15 years old in 2004 when a hard tackle in a rugby game broke his face. Later in hospital he suffered a massive stroke that left his right side paralyzed. His parents, Glenn and Susan Genge were afraid Andrew would never walk or talk again.

Today, Andrew talks just fine and has recovered most of his right hand and arm function thanks to an experimental treatment called Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES). The treatment evolved from research by Dr. Milos Popovic, Toronto Rehab Chair in spinal cord injury research and an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto.

Using electronics to stimulate muscles to retrain parts of the brain damaged by strokes or spinal cord injuries is taking the field of biomedical engineering careers into new areas well beyond what Andrew achieved through repetitive stimulation. One of the most exciting frontiers is being able to control computers and robotic devices with only our thoughts!

A U.S. group of university researchers, called BrainGate, made headlines last month when a Massachusetts woman who has been paralyzed for 15 years was able to control a robotic arm with her thoughts through a tiny brain implant the size of a baby aspirin. She manoeuvred the arm to pick up a bottle of coffee and bring it to her mouth for a drink. (See the PBS story and watch the video).

Picture courtesy of: EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology)Although not yet ready for real people, Swiss researchers last week announced they have used electrical and chemical stimulation to re-establish neural brain connections with the lower spine that allowed rats paralyzed by spinal cord injuries to walk with their hind legs. Last year, researchers at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Research Center at the University of Louisville implanted an electronic device in a paralyzed man’s spine to mimic signals from the brain. He was able to take steps on a treadmill and voluntarily move his hips, knees, ankles, and toes.

While these types of biomedical and neurotechnology engineering are only in the pioneering stage, imagine what people disabled by stroke, neurological disease and spinal cord injuries will be able to do in the future when their body or brain are powered by computing implants, electronics and robotics to improve their mobility or communications abilities.

You don’t have to be a medical doctor to have an interesting career in biomedical and neurotechnology engineering because the medical aspects need computing and electronics experts to make advances possible. For example, the BrainGate Research Team at Brown University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Stanford University, and Providence VA Medical Center mash up engineers, computer scientists and other researchers with medical professionals.

Toronto’s Dr. Popovic actually started his career as an aerospace engineer building control systems for airplanes before he entered rehabilitation research to help some people who are paralyzed like Andrew Genge learn to move again.

If you’re interested in making a real difference in the lives of people, you can study for biomedical careers at universities across Canada. For example, Ryerson University’s bachelor of engineering in biomedical engineering connects with seven world-class hospitals in the Toronto area. The program uses tools from engineering and computer science to teach biology fundamentals from molecules to organ systems. You will learn to develop innovative medicines, devices, and implants to diagnose, treat, and prevent disease. You will also learn to apply this knowledge to patient rehabilitation and the general improvement of health.

Carleton University’s bachelor degree in computer science has a multidisciplinary stream biomedical computing. It mashes up computer science with biology to prepare you for jobs in biotechnology, medical computing and the life sciences. Queen’s University has a biomedical engineering stream in its electrical engineering program.

Check out CareerMash Career Profiles related to biomedical careers such as:

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