Sliman Bensmaia was a University of Chicago neuroscientist whose research into the brain and the human sense of touch helped produce tactile feedback that made prosthetic limbs more useful for amputees and quadriplegics.
Bensmaia’s work built on scientists’ long-standing knowledge that applying electricity to neurons can provoke certain physical reactions. Fueled by a belief that the sense of touch is a fundamental part of being human, Bensmaia ran a lab that performed both pure research and applied research, with an eye toward developing prosthetics whose movements could be directed by the brain while also having a realistic sense of touch.
“He had boundless energy, and he was such an extremely energetic, enthusiastic guy who was brilliant and a really fast thinker,” said U. of C. neurobiology professor David Freedman, whose lab was next to Bensmaia’s. “He was one of those people who loved to find joyful happiness and kind of embrace that and be very enthusiastic about it.”
Bensmaia, 49, died on Aug. 11 at his Hyde Park home, according to the University of Chicago, which provided no cause of death. The Cook County medical examiner’s office is investigating, a spokesperson confirmed.
Born in Nice, France, Bensmaia grew up in France and Algeria before moving to the U.S. at age 15. He received a bachelor’s degree with a major in cognitive science from the University of Virginia in 1995 and a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the University of North Carolina in 2003.
From 2003 until 2009, Bensmaia was a postdoctoral researcher and associate research scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Krieger Mind/Brain Institute in Baltimore, where he studied sensory neurophysiology. In 2009, he was hired as an assistant professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the U. of C., and he was named the university’s James and Karen Frank Family Professor in 2019.
Bensmaia’s arrival at the U. of C. coincided with a new interest in prosthetics, fueled by the return to the U.S. of hundreds of veterans from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who had lost arms or legs or had lost the use of their limbs because of spinal cord injuries. That prompted the U.S. Defense Department to commit funding to prosthetics research.
Researchers found that electrodes implanted in patients’ brains allowed them to move robotic prosthetic arms using their thoughts. But those early prosthetics lacked the ability to receive and respond to tactile feedback.
In addition, those prosthetics required patients “to constantly be visually monitoring what they are doing or they wouldn’t know whether they were holding or crushing something,” Bensmaia told the Tribune in 2011.
Funded in part by federal money, Bensmaia’s lab sought to develop more advanced prosthetics to give users a simulated sense of touch through complex sets of algorithms that map out the way the brain interprets touch. Using the algorithms, Bensmaia and his team were able to build software for computerized sensors that could transmit impulses to electrodes in the human brain, thus mimicking natural touch.
U. of C. officials noted that in 2013 and 2015, Bensmaia’s lab produced groundbreaking studies that provided a road map for how to include realistic sensory feedback in prosthetic limbs. In 2016, he and research partners at the University of Pittsburgh created the first robotic prosthetic device providing realistic touch feedback through the device’s fingertips to a human patient whose thoughts could control the prosthetic arm and hand. A short time later, that same patient attended a White House event and used that arm to greet President Barack Obama.
Those successes paved the way for more work on prosthetics that would allow their users to be able to collect and understand information on sensations like texture, pressure and motion that the patients could then feel through their prosthetic limbs.
Further work included developing a robotic limb using a brain-machine interface in another patient with spinal cord damage who was featured in March on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
“He had this larger-than-life personality, with strong opinions, and he didn’t shy away from expressing them,” said Nicholas Hatsopoulos, a U. of C. organismal biology and anatomy professor and collaborator. “And he was very dedicated to his work, and was very serious about doing the best science he could do. He demanded a lot from people in his lab, but he also had a great sense of humor.”
Recently, Bensmaia had been working with a gynecologist and a biomaterials engineer on an implantable device to help restore sensation and sexual function to breast cancer patients who had undergone a mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery.
“There’s this huge need to restore functions to people who have lost their ability to control their limbs or feel sensations on their body,” Freedman said. “What he was working on in terms of the basic science was how the sense of touch works. It’s a field that has come a long way to the point where we can say how to take our knowledge and turn it into something that can really help people.”
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Freedman noted that Bensmaia felt an urgency in his work, even though it may be many years before widespread adoption of the technology he was developing.
“He was like, ‘Why do we need to wait?’” Freedman said. “He was impatient with the pace of science.”
An accomplished pianist, Bensmaia originally wanted to be a musician, and he and Freedman formed a funk and soul-jazz band, FuzZz, with two other musicians. The group released an album in 2013 and performed regularly around the city. At the time of Bensmaia’s death, the group was recording its second album.
Bensmaia is survived by his wife, Kerry Ledoux; a daughter, Cecily; a son, Maceo; his parents, Reda Bensmaia and Joelle Proust; and a brother, Djamel.
No services have been announced yet.
Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.
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