The K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics was established in 2021 through a $24 million gift to the McGovern Institute from philanthropist Lisa Yang, a former investment banker committed to advocacy for individuals with visible and invisible disabilities. The goal of the center is to develop and deploy enabling technologies that communicate directly with the nervous system to mitigate a broad range of disabilities. The center’s scientists, clinicians, and engineers will work together to create, test, and disseminate bionic technologies that integrate human physiology with electromechanics.
An interdisciplinary approach
The Yang Center for Bionics is deeply interdisciplinary, uniting experts from three MIT schools: Science, Engineering, and Architecture and Planning. Center researchers collaborate with clinical and surgical collaborators at Harvard Medical School to ensure that research advances are tested rapidly and reach people in need, including those in traditionally underserved communities.
The center is led by Hugh Herr, a professor of media arts and sciences at MIT’s Media Lab, and Ed Boyden, the Y. Eva Tan Professor of Neurotechnology at MIT and an investigator at MIT’s McGovern Institute and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
A double amputee himself, Herr is a pioneer in the development of bionic limbs to improve mobility for those with physical disabilities. Boyden, who is a renowned creator of tools to analyze and control the brain, plays a key role in merging bionics technologies with the nervous system.
Together, Herr and Boyden conduct research at the bionics center with three other MIT faculty: Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences Canan Dagdeviren, Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience Nancy Kanwisher, and David H. Koch (1962) Institute Professor Robert Langer. They work closely with three clinical collaborators at Harvard Medical School: orthopedic surgeon Marco Ferrone, plastic surgeon Matthew Carty, and Nancy Oriol, Faculty Associate Dean for Community Engagement in Medical Education.
To support ongoing efforts to move toward a future without disability, the center also provides four endowed fellowships for MIT graduate students working in bionics or other research areas focused on improving the lives of individuals who experience disability.
The Yang Center for Bionics will initially focus on developing and testing three bionic technologies:
- Digital nervous system: to eliminate movement disorders caused by spinal cord injuries, using computer-controlled muscle activations to control limb movements while simultaneously stimulating spinal cord repair
- Brain-controlled limb exoskeletons: to assist weak muscles and enable natural movement for people affected by stroke or musculoskeletal disorders
- Bionic limb reconstruction: to restore natural, brain-controlled movements as well as the sensation of touch and proprioception (awareness of position and movement) from bionic limbs
A fourth priority will be developing a mobile delivery system to ensure patients in medically underserved communities have access to prosthetic limb services. Center investigators are working with government officials in Sierra Leone to create and test a mobile delivery clinic that images, designs, fabricates and fits prosthetic limbs for Sierra Leoneans in dire need.