Our mission is to reduce the burden of neurological and musculoskeletal impairments on daily life by improving outcomes after mobility interventions. To this end, our research projects are focused on addressing two key challenges limiting the effectiveness in improving mobility outcomes of current rehabilitation paradigms and assistive/prosthetic devices. First, we still have a limited understanding of how the neural, muscular, skeletal systems interact across the broad range of movement behaviors important for mobility, nor how this is affected by aging, disease, or injury. Second, while clinical tests can detect deficits in motor function (i.e. who has a problem), they currently lack the power to identify underlying neuromuscular mechanisms (e.g., what is the problem) leading to mobility impairments. 

Project 1: Neuromuscular mechanisms underlying mobility performance

The long-term goal of this project is to identify the underlying neuromuscular deficits leading to reduced mobility due to aging and stroke. This work is motivated by Dr. Allen's prior research examining gait and balance behaviors, which has demonstrated that analyzing a single behavior may overlook important neuromuscular targets that likely must be addressed to improve mobility. For example, the ability to recruit common muscle coordination patterns across walking and balance behaviors is related to motor performance in unimpaired young adults (Sawers, Allen, and Ting, 2015), stroke survivors (Allen et al., 2015), and individuals with Parkinson's disease (Allen et al., 2017). Because successful mobility involves performing many different movement behaviors, we are expanding this work to investigate many diverse movement behaviors important for daily life (e.g., getting into and out of a chair, stair/ramp negotiation, etc). This research will identify critical neuromuscular deficits that may be used to guide the development and optimization of interventions aimed at improving mobility.

Project 2: Identifying neuromuscular deficits in the clinic

The long-term goal of this project is to develop methods to identify critical neuromuscular impairments limiting mobility that are easily administered in the clinic without expensive instrumentation or advanced analysis techniques. Although contemporary clinical tests can detect deficits in motor performance limiting mobility, they lack the power to identify the cause of identified motor deficits. Recently, there has been a growing emphasis on instrumenting clinical tests (e.g. using inertial measurement units) to provide a quantitative assessment of movement quality. Although such instrumentation allows for a more objective and detailed capture of an individual's motor deficits, the muscular impairment(s)  underlying the motor deficits are not captured. This is a critical gap because similar motor output can be achieved through different muscle recruitment and coordination patterns (e.g., Simpson et al., 2015), and may require different mobility interventions to improve. Therefore, we are working to develop models that related observed movement quality to underlying muscle coordination deficits using a combination of machine learning techniques and musculoskeletal modeling and simulation methods. Such models could be used to guide the prescription of mobility interventions that meet the specific needs of each individual.