Assistant Professor Haohan Zhang

University of Utah mechanical engineering assistant professor Haohan Zhang and Kahlert School of Computing assistant professor Daniel Brown have received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Trailblazer Award in a multi-PI proposal. This 3-year project will develop a new neck brace for patients with dropped head syndrome that use gaze tracking to help restore head-neck mobility. The Trailblazer Awards program is a prestigious opportunity for new and early-stage faculty to pursue research programs that “integrate engineering and the physical sciences with the life and/or biomedical sciences.”

Dropped head syndrome is a condition most commonly associated with neuromuscular disorders where a patent’s head droops forward onto their chest. One of the typical treatments is the prescription of neck braces, but many patients don’t use them because they are static, uncomfortable, and ineffective. As a result, patients leave their condition untreated which worsens their ability to breath, swallow, speak, and perform other daily tasks.

“Our long-term goal is to treat dropped head syndrome by restoring head-neck motions through a personalized, powered neck exoskeleton technology,” said Zhang. “We are working towards determining general models to predict head-neck movements in different gaze conditions (e.g. smooth pursuit, saccade) and a personalization strategy for a gaze-controlled neck exoskeleton.”

Assistant Professor Daniel Brown

The award will help support multiple PhD students as they develop the predictive models for head movements conditioned on user’s gaze as well as the user-in-the-loop gaze controller for the powered neck exoskeleton. This will lead to an easy-to-use control that follows the users natural head-eye behavior, combined with an ongoing human-in-the-loop personalization strategy.

“The proposed research is significant because it is expected to provide strong scientific justification for continued development of the gaze-controlled neck exoskeleton and future clinical trials that are aimed at bring the technology to patents’ homes,” said Zhang. “Ultimately, this knowledge has the potential of offering new opportunities for better treatment for dropped head syndrome.”

You can learn more about Zhang’s research through the Utah Wearable Robotics Lab website. You can learn more about Brown’s research through his website. Both are members of the University of Utah Robotics Center.