The Bioengineering division has been part of the Washington National Primate Research Center since its inception. Today, our focus is on developing instruments, tools, or other technological solutions when these cannot be obtained off-the-shelf; modifying them to meet altered requirements; or simply repairing them. While the WaNPRC Neuroscience Core researchers are our primary clients, we support all the labs, colony and sometimes develop and build devices for other universities.
An example of a highly complex device developed by the Bioengineering division is a “manipulandum” for Dr. Eb Fetz and partners. The researchers’ central goal is to learn how our brains control our arms in the complex activities that seem so effortless for the able-bodied. Our NHP subject is trained to grasp a handle in the device, and through it apply torques, forces and motions in various directions in order to move a cursor on a display screen (and receive rewards for performing the task properly). Extracellular nerve signals from various areas within the brain and spinal cord are measured during these activities. Some of the earliest of these devices were only capable of controlling a single parameter (flexion-extension torque). Our latest versions measure up to seven orthogonal forces and torques, move under power in two axes, and can simulate more realistic phenomena like inertia. This requires sophisticated mechanical, electronic, and firmware design and implementation.
The manipulanda are exceptional while most of our devices are far simpler. We repair damaged equipment (from fixing bad power cables and stuck set-screws to complex systems), make recommendations of materials and commercially-made products, and diagnose subtle technical problems (including noise), as well as develop new devices. We stock and resell a wide variety of parts and materials for urgent needs. Experiments that are “down” due to faulty equipment are always our top priority.
Being in research requires a never-ending stream of new experimental designs, and coping with our clever nonhuman primate (NHP) subjects who come up with new ways to thwart the best plans.Bioengineering’s most important asset in solving these problems is our people, who have years of experience solving practical problems with the equipment used in experimental studies involving NHPs. They are able to share solutions to problems common to research groups.
The WaNPRC in-house machine shop, designs and builds devices from metals, plastics and other materials using a variety of precise machining, welding, and other technologies. For devices requiring complex shapes or repeated machining operations, we have a 4-axis CNC milling machine. We also make use of local companies for special operations that are beyond what we can achieve in our facilities, such as: 3-D printing, anodizing, water-jet cutting, and forming large pieces.
The WaNPRC electronics shop designs and builds devices for measurement, control, and communications. Increasingly these are compact and made with surface-mount technology, and can have varying degrees of “smart” microcontrollers in them and consume very little (battery) power. We’ve developed electro-optical systems for stimulation and control, and telemetry systems for situations where interconnecting wires are intolerable.
While these services are not free, their cost is significantly reduced by P51 grant funding from the National Institutes of Health. Most similar services on the University of Washington campus charge at least twice our labor rate, which is currently $47 per hour, and those shops do not have our experience with NHP research. Parts and materials are sold at cost. Project costs can be estimated before any work is commissioned – though creating firm estimates takes time and will add to the total cost. We’re currently developing some tools that will provide regularly e-mailed status reports for longer projects. Please let us know if we can assist with your next project.
Frank Miles | Research Engineer | WaNPRC Division of Bioengineering