Performance Engineered

How bioengineering technologies may help tomorrow's athletes

By Ben Whitford

Student lifting weights

When UIC’s men’s tennis team arrived for training one recent morning, they were fired up from a big match and eager to pump iron—but head strength and conditioning coach Nick Zostautas had other ideas. Eying an iPad streaming data from an accelerometer on the squat bars, he lowered the amount of weight until each athlete was able to thrust the bar upward at a speed of at least 0.8 meters per second. “Boys, these metrics are telling us you haven’t recovered to a level where you can handle heavy weights yet,” he explained. “Maybe we should put in some more time doing recovery stuff.”

That’s standard practice for the Flames, who have incorporated new technologies into all aspects of their training. “When it comes to weightlifting, for centuries we didn’t evolve all that much from lifting rocks and stones, like in ancient times,” Zostautas said. “But in the last 20 years or so, our use of new technologies has skyrocketed.” UIC athletes now use GPS and heart-monitoring devices to track how far and how fast they run, to monitor their sleep and stress levels, and to create tailored training programs designed to reduce injuries and optimize performance.

Thanks to the UIC Engineering faculty, other breakthroughs that could transform the world of sports are just around the corner. From better ways to extract biomarkers from tiny drops of blood to devices that can help athletes learn more efficiently, UIC Engineering innovations could help the athletes of tomorrow to perform better and stay safer. “This is a great time to be a coach,” Zostautas said.

Small wonders

Like the Flames’ accelerometers and GPS trackers, many performance-boosting innovations spring from a broader revolution in miniaturized electronics. When Hananeh Esmailbeigi began her PhD at UIC in 2005, it cost $10,000 to custom-order a batch of microsensors. Now, thanks to the rise of smartphones, such sensors are mass-produced. “You can go online and order similar components for $5, and they’ll be way more sensitive,” laughed Esmailbeigi, a clinical associate professor of bioengineering who directs UIC’s Wearable Technology and Sensory Enhancement Laboratory.

Most commercial sensors are worn on Fitbit-style bracelets, but Esmailbeigi is developing mouthguard-mounted sensors that could unlock a fresh wave of biometric information. The NFL hopes to use similar gadgets to quantify the crunching impact of football tackles, helping to reduce concussions, but Esmailbeigi says that’s only the beginning. The movement of an athlete’s jaw muscles could yield a trove of data about concentration, endurance, and readiness to learn. “There are various jaw-clenching behaviors exhibited under different kinds of stress that could apply to athletes as they learn new tasks,” Esmailbeigi explained.

Eventually, mouthguard-based sensors might even be able to monitor brain activity. “The mouth gives us a way to access the brain from another angle,” Esmailbeigi said. “Can we see what’s happening in there from a different point of view? That’s something we haven’t yet truly explored.”

A more immediate approach to studying athletes’ brains is to put grey matter under the microscope—and that’s what Tolou Shokuhfar, PhD, an associate professor of bioengineering and a pioneer in the field of in-situ nanomedicine, is doing. By encapsulating individual neurons in graphene, a recently developed material comprising an atom-thick layer of carbon atoms in a honeycomb lattice, she can keep them alive to study their biochemical processes under an electron microscope. That opens the door to new insights into the way concussion injuries are mediated by the brain’s own neurochemistry: trauma can cause the brain to over-release neurotransmitters that are toxic in large quantities, triggering a cascade of secondary damage to brain structures. Shokuhfar’s research is still in its early days, but she envisions a future in which physicians can use medicines or even handheld defibrillator-style devices to “reset” traumatized neurons, preventing or countering the release of neurotoxic chemicals and shielding athletes from impact-related injuries.

Not far from Shokuhfar’s lab, her colleague Ian Papautsky, PhD, a Richard and Loan Hill Professor of Bioengineering, is developing “lab-on-a-chip” technologies that have the potential to instantly analyze the biochemical markers that flow through an athlete’s bodily fluids. Using hydrodynamic forces, researchers can separate and sort blood cells and other biomarkers found in a single drop of blood, paving the way for tiny tools that can give athletes and teams information that previously would have required time-consuming laboratory testing.

Craig Murdock, PhD, an alumnus of Papautsky’s former lab at the University of Cincinnati, is a program manager at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio. There, researchers are developing wearable devices for soldiers that can continuously monitor biomarkers for hydration and stress. Using microfluidic technologies like those pioneered in the Papautsky Lab, Murdock and his colleagues are incorporating sensors into disposable patches that look like Band-Aids, allowing drill sergeants to monitor recruits’ biomarkers in real time, keeping them safe even as they push them to their limits. “Microfluidics provides a platform to do some really innovative sensing,” Murdock explained. “Without the types of platforms that Papautsky’s group is designing, it’s extremely difficult to transition some of the biomarker assays that are performed on a sample down to easily usable or accessible devices.”

Murdock dreams of ultimately developing devices that, like Star Trek tricorders, can instantly deliver broad-spectrum data on an athlete’s health and endurance: “If you can get that information right away, you can make changes on the spot to improve training outcomes.”

Learning from mistakes

Biometrics are useful, but boosting athletic performance also requires honing your skills. The best way to do that, according to bioengineering Professor James Patton, PhD, is to have a robot amplify your shortcomings. A person learning to throw a ball will improve faster if a robot spots errors in mid-throw and nudges the person even further off track, forcing him or her to overcompensate, Patton said. “We have a whole suite of really wacky, specially designed robots—they’re very gentle, but they’ll give you a little supplemental push to divert your motion,” he said. “You learn from your mistakes, so by making your mistakes bigger, I can get you to learn faster and better.”

That’s a departure from previous robot-guided training methods that physically led subjects through a task. “If you’re trying to teach someone to do a golf swing, you might want to hold them tight and physically move them through a perfect swing, but it turns out that’s absolutely not useful. It doesn’t work at all,” Patton said. “If the robot takes over, then the person has no autonomy and doesn’t ever figure out how to do it.”

Patton uses his “error augmentation” robots to rehabilitate stroke patients, but other researchers are applying his ideas to athletic endeavors. “It’s really taken hold worldwide,” he said. Some teams have tested using error augmentation to improve golf swings and rowing technique; others use similar methods to train weightlifters and long-jumpers. There’s also evidence that error augmentation can help people to keep improving after their skills have otherwise plateaued, suggesting that even top athletes might benefit from the approach. “It’s counterintuitive, but error augmentation has provided a concrete answer for how to facilitate learning,” Patton said.

Human error is also a valuable source of knowledge about the way the human body works, said UIC bioengineer and kinesiologist Andrew Sawers, PhD, who spends much of his time watching people fall over. That’s hard to orchestrate, as standard balance tests are easy to master. “We see people tripping in the parking lot, then coming in and passing our balance tests,” he sighed. To get around that, Sawers built a long, gradually narrowing beam that subjects must painstakingly edge their way along. Sawers works primarily with people with lower-limb amputation, but to test his new apparatus he invited professional ballerinas to try it out. While they stayed on the beam longer than most, Sawers was delighted to see that they eventually did topple off.

By comparing the balance responses of people with widely ranging abilities, from those with lower-limb amputation to elite athletes, Sawers has been able to identify the muscle groups that mediate balance in people of different skill levels. This, he said, could enable manufacturers to create safer, less stumble-prone prosthetics. That shows the importance of studying athletic performance—and the benefit of an institution like UIC, where engineers work alongside kinesiologists, doctors, and sports scientists. “Some of us work on people, and some of us work on devices, but when it comes down to performance, it’s all about the interaction between the two,” Sawers said.

Back in the Flames’ varsity weight room, Coach Zostautas said he’s thrilled to see UIC researchers making gains that can drive athletic performance forward. “It’s great for us to have these researchers just down the hall,” he said. “All these ideas are being tested in lab settings, but it’s here, working with athletes, that the rubber really hits the road.” Students are eager to use new technologies, he added, and even the most grizzled coaches are warming to the idea of using techno-wizardry to help athletes train smarter, safer, and harder. “For old-timers, it can seem scary, because this stuff is moving so fast,” he said. “But it’s truly effective, and it seems like the sky’s the limit.”