Professor’s passion for ‘rewiring’ the human body draws international praise

U of A researcher Vivian Mushahwar earns American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) fellowship and US$2 million in research grants to support spinal cord restoration projects.

Kirsten Bauer - 19 February 2021

Vivian Mushahwar, director of the Sensory Motor Adaptive Rehabilitation Technology (SMART) Network and Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in Functional Restoration is to be inducted as a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE), an honour that sets apart the top two per cent of medical and biological engineers. 

“It's incredibly humbling for such a large group of peers to recognize that you're doing something impactful that is moving the field forward, while hopefully having an impact on the lives of people in general,” Mushahwar says. 

Further testament to her successes, Mushahwar recently secured a Spinal Cord Injury Research on the Translational Spectrum (SCIRTS) Senior Research Grant from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, and a Spinal Cord Injury Research Program (SCIRP) Translational Research Award from the U.S. Department of Defense, totalling more than US$2 million to support first-in-human pre-clinical trials of a hair-like micro implant that could restore walking ability in patients with spinal cord injuries.

A lightbulb moment sparks a lifelong dream

Currently a professor in the Department of Medicine, adjunct professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and member of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute (NMHI), Mushahwar has devoted her career to the development of technological interventions for those with neural injuries and related complications, but her path to medical research was not always clear.

“I started out doing my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering because I loved physics and math, but along the way I realized that I just can't be in the back of a lab developing the next best computer. I really need to be able to use my skills to help others.”

A chance encounter with some wheelchair-bound teens with spinal cord injuries inspired Mushahwar’s dream of helping people like them, who had lost their mobility due to injury, recover their ability to walk.

“That became my passion,” she says. “How can I use my technical skills to solve medical problems, especially problems related to the nervous system, because in the end, the nervous system is the most elaborate and impressive computer.”

After pursuing education in biomedical engineering and rehabilitation science, Mushahwar came to the University of Alberta for a post-doctoral fellowship in neuroscience, where she has since developed her academic portfolio. 

“And so now you can see I've put all of those pieces together, always with the aim of improving the life of someone else who may be experiencing neurological conditions.”

Her list of groundbreaking innovations includes Smart-e-Pants, an undergarment that uses electrical stimulation to prevent bedsores, and the SOCC (Smart On-going Circulatory Compressions), an active electrical sock for the prevention of deep vein thrombosis and circulatory problems. She has also established three startup companies. 

A smarter future for precision rehabilitation

The name of the SMART Network reflects not only the interdisciplinary group of researchers from engineering, medicine, rehabilitation, computer science, neuroscience and social sciences housed within the centre, but also Mushahwar’s multiple intersecting areas of expertise, and where her research may be heading in the future. 

“It stands for sensory-motor adaptive rehabilitation technology—sensory-motor means the nervous system, which is one kind of network, but it also signifies that the technologies are intelligent as well.” 

The collaboration looks to improve motor function through a precision health approach in the future—to create technological solutions that are informed by each person’s specific circumstances and needs.  

“We have technology that looks at what's in your blood and what's in your tissue, but also how you move, how you interact with your environment and who you are as a person,” says Mushahwar. “Our ultimate goal is to develop interventions that are adapted to you, as you are, as a biologically unique individual, to best help you with your activities.”