Our research

The BioDesign Lab is a transdisciplinary collaboration of engineers, designers, physiologists, neuroscientists, and clinicians, all with an interest in finding effective solutions to real-life health and environmental problems. We take the view that health is more than the absence of disease, and therefore we also have an interest in optimising human performance. The diversity of our team and interests means we are involved in numerous projects, including the projects of final year engineering students who have an interest in bioengineering.

Clinical interests

Our clinical interests include metabolic disease, neurological and neurodegenerative disorders, sleep disorders, respiratory diseases, chronic pain, mental health, and both injury prevention and rehabilitation.

Our environmental interests include water purification, protection and rehabilitation of wildlife, and environmental monitoring. Our performance interests include monitoring and accelerating recovery, and building stress resilience.

Core research and development themes

Much of our current work fits under the themes described below. These do not operate in isolation, but instead all complement each other in one or more ways. We believe that to find workable solutions we need to be able to monitor a problem, acquire a deep understanding, and then develop ways to modify the key contributing factors.

Dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the part of our nervous systems responsible for the fight/flight/freeze and the rest and digest responses, appears to be one of the earliest signs that our bodies are no longer entirely healthy. It precedes numerous conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. This part of the nervous system heavily influences things like our breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and immune function. We believe this central role in controlling physiology make it a prime target for early detection and non-pharmacological treatment of many metabolic and neurological conditions.

Biorhythms are the natural rhythms that govern our physiology. Biorhythms can be relatively short such as 60-90 minute cycles of the ‘stress’ hormone cortisol, or the roughly 90-180 minute nasal cycle. The most well characterised biorhythms are the circadian or 24-hour rhythm of things like rest and activity, several hormones, and body temperature. Then there is the roughly month-long menstrual cycle. A great deal of research has highlighted the negative consequences of living counter to our natural rhythms, like the effects of sleep deprivation, jet lag from travel and social jetlag, and shift work.

We are exploring non-invasive technologies to track people’s natural rhythms and identify when these start to get out of sync, which also has implications for the autonomic nervous system as this too is heavily governed by our biorhythms. We are also exploring new ways of tracking autonomic activity, and thereby stress, continuously and in real-time.

Current projects include

  • Investigation of the effects of an augmented breathing technology on the central and autonomic nervous system.
  • Investigation of the different components of Brhamari pranayama or ‘humming bee breath’ on the autonomic and central nervous system.
  • A head-to-head comparison of four different breathing techniques (alternate nostril breathing, right and left unilateral breathing, and humming breathing) on autonomic nervous system activity.

Over the last few years, the BioDesign Lab has focused heavily on breathing technologies for the treatment of sleep apnoea and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD). The prime example of this is the Rest Activity Cycler (RACer), an alternative to more traditional continuous positive airway pressure that respects the nasal cycle and its important contribution to respiratory health, sleep quality, and mental health.

Another enhanced breathing technology we are developing is being investigated for its potential in respiratory infection prevention, alleviation of rhinosinusitis, autonomic nervous system regulation in a broad range of conditions, and enhanced recovery from exercise.

Recent student projects

Wearable and other sensors now allow us to collect an unprecedented amount of information, e.g. heart rate, blood pressure, blood oxygen saturation, physical movement, and blood glucose. However, this only becomes truly useful when we know what all that information is telling us. We work with range of external partners to meet the challenge of integrating and understanding this data using artificial intelligence (AI) solutions.

Researchers will be able to use this to develop a deeper understanding of human physiology in health and disease, and this in turn will be passed on to clinicians to allow for much earlier and more accurate diagnosis and prognosis. The wearers will be given a new insight to how their body is coping with life, so they can make small changes as and when needed, and get rapid feedback on how well those changes are working. Clinicians will also, with the patients consent, be able to regularly check how well people are responding to treatments. The ultimate goal is to provide an individualise proactive health technology platform that makes genuine personalised medicine standard practice.

The brain is the command and control centre of the body. To a large extent it regulates all other systems. At the same time, the brain is heavily influenced by, and needs to respond to, the internal environment of the body as well as our external environment. Understanding these interactions at the level of brain activity, heavily governed by complex networks that connect different parts of the brain, is central to truly understanding our brain’s role in health and disease. We explore the activity of the brain using imaging such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and high-definition electroencephalography (EEG). We then apply artificial intelligence (AI) technologies such as machine learning and neural networks, and techniques such as dynamical systems theory to integrate the data from the different imaging technologies. Our philosophy is to use an open approach in which the AI models are informed by known principles in neuroscience, and where the assumptions made by the AI methods are visible for human interpretation. In other words, we are always ‘looking under the hood’ to ensure any AI models are brain-inspired.

Our main areas of interest are neurological conditions, including neurodegenerative diseases, and how whole-body metabolism, for example metabolic diseases, interacts with the brain to progress or regress/reverse these conditions, recognising this may go in both directions.

Abnormal metabolism, the distribution and use of fuels such as carbohydrates and fats in the body, underlies numerous disease processes. When this is short-term, such as during an infection or a short period of fasting, this can be appropriate and harmless or even health promoting, but when it is long-term, such as in the case of diabetes, this is detrimental. Yet health can be negatively affected long before a diagnosis is received and continues to decline without optimal management. For example, people with dysregulated metabolism are at much greater risk of developing cardiovascular complications, liver disease, kidney disease, and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The research has now clearly demonstrated that for many people metabolic disease can be reversed, or in conditions where it can’t be fully reversed, it can still be very well managed to minimise the need for medication and risk of complications. Lifestyle factors such as diet, physical activity, sleep quality and quantity, and stress management are all both implicated in the development of metabolic disease, and when appropriately modified provide the best chance for both prevention of more severe disease, or reversal if disease is already present. Two key challenges that remain are: 1) early detection, as the earlier problems are detected, the easier it is to reverse/manage them and prevent more serious problems; and 2) personalised treatment, as people vary greatly in how metabolic diseases manifest, as well as what is contributing most to them, and what is easiest for a person to modify.

An important third focus of our work is visualising metabolism in real-time by using wearable and other biomedical sensors to track, and artificial intelligence (AI) to translate things like blood glucose concentration, heart rate, physical activity, and biorhythms in ways that are useful to clinicians and meaningful to users.

Some of our team, including postgraduate students and commercial partners, focus on developing assistive, rehabilitation technologies, and systems inspired by biology. We study human and animal musculoskeletal biomechanics to produce innovative devices that address unmet bioengineering needs.  There is a strong emphasis on supporting humans, and in some cases animal biomechanics, using advanced prosthetics and other technologies.  Among different projects, we are working to develop solutions for musculoskeletal rare disorders and issues derived from traumatic-impact accidents.

One human example is work on a device for wrist healing and rehabilitation, and one from the animal arena is the development of a prosthetic limb for sea turtles. The latter is part of a broader interest in developing ocean focused technologies for the study of biomechanics in deep sea dwelling animals.

Current projects

These are current student projects being undertaken in sub-areas of the musculoskeletal biomechanics, assistive and rehabilitation technologies theme.

Sub-area: healthcare technology

  • Investigation and design of a new rehabilitation system to treat children’s lower limb with neuromuscular problems based on soft robotics (Alberto Gonzalez, PhD candidate, 2019-ongoing)
  • Investigation of Ankle De-loading Device Based on Artificial Soft-Robotic Muscles for Patients with Ankle Osteoarthritis (Hossein Basereh, PhD candidate, pending start)
  • Design a new instrument for pediatric laparoscopic surgery (Sana Khan Azmi, BE undergrad, 2019-ongoing)

Sub-area: ocean technology

  • Investigation of advantages of Sea Turtle Underwater Robot against conventional UAVs (Nick Van der Gueest, PhD candidate, 2020-ongoing)
  • Investigation of advantages of Manta Ray Underwater Robot against conventional UAVs (Harshith Devanahalli, PhD candidate, pending start)

All the ‘external’ surfaces of our bodies are home to a complex ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes. This is especially true for our skin, small intestine, large intestine, and nose, but also for the sinuses, and even the lungs. It’s estimated that for every human cell we are made up of 10, maybe more, microbial cells. This complex population of microbes we share our intimate space with is known as our  microbiota. You might also come across the term  microbiome, which refers to the genome of our microbiota. The composition of our microbiota and microbiome has a large and very direct effect on our physiology and thereby our health. For example, we now known that our bowel microbiota communicates with our nervous system, our endocrine system, and our immune system, and it can make us more prone or less prone to certain diseases. We are exploring how technology influences our microbiota, and in turn how our microbiota effects our response to some technologies, as both will have an influence on our health.

The healthcare sector faces challenges from issues of equity to cost, and safety. These challenges could be addressed by employing appropriate information and communication technologies (ICT). ICT utilisation and integration in healthcare lead to the introduction of ‘e-Health’, with the goal of increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the healthcare processes and procedures, and quality of the delivered services.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines e-health as  ‘the cost-effective and secure use of information and communications technology in support of health and health-related fields, including health care services, health surveillance, health literature, and health education, knowledge, and research’.

e-Health encompasses a variety of technologies, from telemedicine and mobile health to big data, Electronic Healthcare Records (EHR), Decision Support Systems (DSS), the Internet of Things (IoT), and Artificial Intelligence (AI). e-Health also includes a wide range of health services like home monitoring systems and advanced telehealth applications.

Regardless of technology types, e-health applications aim to enhance the quality of healthcare services and their accessibility to a wider community.

Current projects include

  • Audio Analysis Applications in Healthcare and Mental Health
  • Using Computer Vision to Identify Objects in an Operating Theatre to Support Safer Working
  • e-Health in Disaster Management and Managing Infectious Diseases Outbreaks
  • Electronic Health Record (EHR) Systems Implementation: Private and Public Sectors in Saudi Arabia

Data from research can be complex and hard to visualise or explain in words. With the help of the AUT Sentience Lab, we are harnessing Extended Reality (XR) tools to visualise some of the results from the research in other themes. Current examples include airflow in the nasal cavity, and visualising brain activity affected by augmented breathing. With the data being inherently spatial, any visualisation on a 2D medium like paper or a screen literally falls flat. XR technology allows natural interaction and perception of 3D structures, connections, and relations. The natural capability of the human brain to perceive and see structures and patterns can unearth relations that might have escaped numerical analysis.

RACer (rest activity cycler) housing prototype

3D printing of component housing