Research Spotlight: Dr. Lena Ting

In the ninth grade, an article for an in-class assignment about muscle stimulation and its impact on individuals with spinal cord injuries piqued the interest of Dr.Lena Ting. As such, she initially fostered an interest in physics and neurobiology and wanted to become an astronaut. She went on to pursue her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at Berkeley and discovered an interest in robotics and human motion analysis. As an undergraduate, she worked in a lab that analyzed insects like cockroaches and which later designed robots with insect-like features. From this work, she sought to extrapolate this knowledge to understanding motor movements in human beings.

Now, Dr. Ting, a faculty and research member of the Coulter department, and her laboratory explore how the brain controls muscle movement. Via a combination understanding of neurobiology and biomechanics, her lab explores whole body movement in both healthy individuals and those with motor impairments. Their objective is to improve the way motor impairments are analyzed. Dr. Ting believes current methods focus more on whether an individual can walk as opposed to how an individual can walk. Therefore, means to discovering better ways to perform rehabilitation on individuals with motor impairments such as spinal cord injuries are glossed over and the rehabilitation learning curve is made to be longer for these individuals.

Her lab’s recent move to Emory University was precipitated by having greater accessibility to patients at the Emory Rehabilitation Hospital and to fellow collaborators in the field. Currently, Dr. Ting is working with a lab investigating Parkinson’s disease and its effect on balance mechanisms through an adapted version of the South American dance, the Tango. The lab’s spin on the Argentinian tango is targeted to help people with Parkinson’s with balance and movement initiation and thus simultaneously help them with dual tasking (walking and talking).

The importance of gait analysis and, specifically, measuring how one can better analyze gait goes beyond helping those with motor deficiencies or diseases and into treatment of clinical depression. Researchers have noticed that individuals with clinical depression tend to walk slowly and with a stoop. Thus, Dr. Ting believes it would be essential to the progress of research and understanding of clinical depression to understand how parameters of gait can be measured and attributed to this disease.

Dr. Ting’s laboratory analyzes both muscle activity and biomechanics to understand how muscle reactivity results in motor movement using tools such as moving platforms to analyze how people fall. The data collected is then analyzed using robust algorithms. Computer models of the musculoskeletal system are also used to this end and musculoskeletal simulation analysis is also conducted as well.

Dr. Ting also has another interesting line of research in her laboratory involving the analysis of human-robot interactions with assistive devices and analyzing human-human interactions. This data is being collected in the hope of trying to create assistive robots that function fluidly with the user.

Ten years from now, Dr. Ting sees her research becoming more application oriented. She also intends to conduct more sophisticated analysis and simulation to understand the function of the sensory system and variation in individuals’ gait. Eventually, she intends to move from motor analysis and towards psychiatrics and work towards optimizing rehabilitation for each individual and help further the field of personalized medicine.