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PM&R Research Receives Prestigious NIH Director’s Early Independence Award - U of U School of Medicine

Jacob A. George, an incoming assistant professor at the University of Utah, has received the National Institutes of Health Director’s Early Independence Award.

Part of the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, the Director’s Early Independence Award supports exceptional junior scientists who have recently received their doctoral degree or completed their medical residency to skip traditional post-doctoral training and move immediately into independent research positions. George is one of 13 in the nation who have received this year’s award and one of two from the U along with Adam Lee Baily, an incoming assistant professor in the U’s Department of Pathology. They are the first awardees from The University of Utah since the award was established in 2011.

“I’m honored to have received this award. And I’m thankful for all the support I’ve received from the U. It’s really an exciting time here in Utah,” George said “This award aligns perfectly with the opening of the new Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital, and I’m excited to bring together people and technology from the College of Engineering and the School of Medicine to improve the lives of patients.”

George’s award provides $1.8 million over five years to develop thought-controlled bionic exoskeletons to assist and rehabilitate stroke patients.

After a stroke, 80% of patients are left paralyzed on half of their body, an impairment known as hemiparesis. Recovery is long, often not successful, and dependent on expensive equipment that is not available to rural populations. His award will leverage new advances in artificial intelligence to better understand how the neuromuscular system recovers from hemiparesis and enable smart bionic exoskeletons that adapt to the patient’s needs. George plans to test his new bionic exoskeleton with patients at the Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital with the hope they can use the device to immediately return to their daily activities.

“We’re enthusiastically welcoming of Dr. George to our PM&R family and the new Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital,” said Division Chief Dr. David Steinberg, MD, MMM. “This prestigious award is a first ever for the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation. I’m confident his innovative work will have a profound impact on our patients for years to come.”

George’s new lab, the Utah’s NeuroRobotics Lab, seeks to augment biological neural networks with artificial neural networks and bionic devices to treat neurological disorders and further scientists’ understanding of the brain. His lab is developing biologically inspired artificial intelligence and brain-machine interfaces to restore and/or enhance human function.

George received his bachelor’s in biomedical engineering from The University of Texas at Austin and his master’s and doctorate in biomedical engineering from the University of Utah. His research has been previously supported by fellowships from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

George has been a key researcher in several other high-profile bionic devices. He previously worked on the LUKE Arm prosthesis, a motorized artificial hand co-developed with DEKA Research & Development Corp. The prosthetic allows users to manipulate the hand with their thoughts as well as “feel” sensations through a neural interface.

By Vincent Horiuchi