Liman Bensmaia, leading expert in the neuroscience of touch, 1973-2023. (2023)

Sliman Bensmaia, PhD, a pioneering neuroscientist and leading expert on the sense of touch, died on August 11, 2023. He was 49.

Bensmaia, James and Karen Frank, professors of biology and organic anatomy at the University of Chicago, examined how sensory information about the touch, texture and shape of objects is represented in the nervous system and brain, which in turn affects the human perception of the world it generates. . He then used these findings to help develop prosthetic limbs that could restore a realistic sense of touch to amputees and paralyzed patients.

His lab has generated brain-computer interface (BCI) algorithms that convert the output of sensors in bionic arms into stimulation patterns that can be transmitted via electrodes implanted in the brain. Using what he called a "biomimicry" approach, he and his team sought to recreate the biological processes underlying the way the nervous system transmits signals from the arms and hands to create natural sensations of touch and stimulate bionic limbs, in order to enabled greater dexterity.

"Sliman was a driving force and a true inspiration to others," said Michael Coates, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Organ Biology and Anatomy. “His research group has blossomed phenomenally, full of talented undergraduates and postdocs working in the basic sciences on wonderfully thoughtful and constructive projects. While his work was intrinsically fascinating, he was equally thoughtful, honest and caring to support everyone around him.”

Bensmaija's laboratory has published a number of innovative studies2013e2015which spawned plans to incorporate realistic sensory feedback into prosthetic limbs. Through experiments with non-human primates, they identified patterns of neural activity that occur naturally when animals manipulate objects - and successfully recreated those patterns by directly stimulating the nervous system with electrical signals.

Liman Bensmaia, leading expert in the neuroscience of touch, 1973-2023. (1)

In 2016, Bensmaia collaborated with partners from the University of Pittsburgh to develop the first robotic prosthetic device thatrealistic touch feedback for the human patientwho could control his arm and hand with his thoughts. The device enabled a 28-year-old man, paralyzed from the chest down, to distinguish between touching individual fingers and touching the palm of a robotic hand. Later that fall, the patient regained the use of his armgreetings President Barack Obamaat an event at the White House.

dr. Nicholas Hatsopoulos, a professor of biology and organic anatomy who studies motor control and how the brain directs limb movements, has worked regularly with Bensmaia. Their work together included aa project for making a prosthesiswith the same dexterity and functionality as the human hand.

Hatsopoulos described their collaboration as yin-yang: the intense Bensmaia was focused on sensations, and the more relaxed Hatsopoulos on movement. "He was a force of nature," Hatsopoulos said. "He was like a younger brother to me, but he demanded a lot and pushed me to be better. He wanted to do the best science we could, and he would sacrifice that for nothing."

Bensmaia continued to work with partners at UChicago and other universities to further develop BCI devices and robotic armsconnect to peripheral nerves in amputated limbs. In 2021, the team, working with UChicago neurosurgeon, MD. Peter Warnke, successfully deployed a BCI-based robotic limb inanother patient who suffered spinal cord damage in a car accident, introduced earlier this year60 minutes.

He got oneResearch Program Award(R35) from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in 2022 to further support this neuroprosthetic work. Recently, she has begun to expand the application of these concepts, rooted in the belief that the sense of touch is a fundamental part of what makes us human. He teamed up with gynecologist Stacy Lindau, Ph.D. med., and biomaterials engineer dr. Sihong Wang, to develop a "bionic breast," an implantable device that would helprestoration of sexual sensation and function in patients with breast cancerafter mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

"Liman's passion for restoring the human sense of touch was born from love. He loved the science of touch, but he loved even more his students, colleagues and patients who worked with him to discover the essence and meaning of touch,” said Lindau. "He was drawn to the Bionic Breast Project because of the potentially large impact of its findings and because he particularly saw an unexplored area in the scientific understanding of the touch of love."

From Charlottesville to Chicago

Bensmaia graduated from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1995. As a computer engineering and cognitive science graduate student, he wanted to be a musician. He was an excellent pianist, but his parents, both academics, convinced him to enroll in graduate studies. He was accepted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), where he worked in a psychology laboratory studying the sense of touch. He received his PhD in cognitive psychology with a minor in neurobiology from UNC in 2003, and from 2003 to 2009 worked as a postdoctoral fellow and research associate at the Krieger Mind/Brain Institute of Johns Hopkins University.

He joined the University of Chicago faculty as an assistant professor in 2009 and received a 2011 National Science Foundation Early Career Award and a 2015 Department of Biological Sciences Distinguished Investigator Award. In 2018, he was selected by the National Academy of Sciences as a Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow, and in 2019 he was named the James and Karen Frank Family Professor at UChicago.

Bensmaia also had an infectious enthusiasm for communicating his research to the public. During an interview about his work, he was quick to pick up objects like pencils and coffee mugs to show how our dexterity and ability to manipulate objects depends on our sense of touch. He often used music as a metaphor to describe how our various senses come together like a jazz quintet to shape our experience of the world. Despite the science fiction implications of his work, he rejected simple pop culture comparisons and instead emphasized the importance of a rigorous scientific approach to truly understanding the neurobiology of sensation.

passion for music

Friends and colleagues remembered this passion both for his music and for his work. David Freedman, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience, met Bensmaija shortly after they both joined the faculty, bonding over the difficulties of starting a new lab and their shared love of music. Guitarist Freedman began playing regularly with Bensmaia and eventually formed the funk and soul jazz band FuzZz with two other musicians. Shereleased an album2013 and have been performing regularly in the city for the past 12 years and were in the process of recording their second album.

Freedman studies decision making and learning within the visual system. Although the two had never done research together, they initiated plans to investigate how these cognitive processes affect brain regions involved in touch.

"We worked very closely together musically - constantly communicating as friends and colleagues - but we had not yet worked on a joint scientific project. He was a really interesting person to work with and we had a lot of fun planning new experiments just days before he passed away," Freedman said. "He had an intense desire to do work that was widely recognized and impacted people's lives, and he became a star because he was so focused on quality research."

Stephanie Palmer, Ph.D., associate professor of organ biology and anatomy, and D. Allan Drummond, Ph.D., associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, wrote: “Sliman was a brilliant scientist and a devoted colleague, mentor and friend. He was a real character with an extraordinary personality and brought extraordinary passion and charisma to his work and life. His gift as an accomplished improvisational jazz pianist and highly skilled neuroscientist was coupled with a deep intellectual interest in dexterity and touch.”

This merger was intentional and deliberate, they said, perhaps best expressed in their own words in a text message they sent to Drummond in 2020:

I think we as scientists embody something fundamentally beautiful human... I still believe in beauty idealistically and perhaps naively because we, or at least some of us, experience it and are moved by it.

Bensmaia has lived in Hyde Park, Chicago for a long time. He is survived by his wife, Kerry Ledoux, associate professor of psychology and professor at UChicago, and their two children.

Details about the farewell and the funeral mass are still pending.


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