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College of Engineering and School of Medicine team up on knee ligament tears

Pictured is the team of students and professors working to limit ACL tears in adolescent females.

MU Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Marge Skubic teamed up with Aaron Gray in the MU School of Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine and Department of Orthopaedics on a research project to predict the occurrence of sports-related ACL tears in adolescent girls. Their diverse research team includes, from left to right seated, Associate Professor Trent Guess in physical therapy and orthopaedics, computer science freshman Jeffrey Ruffolo, Skubic, Gray and Brad Willis, an MU physical therapist. Standing are Ryan Babiuch, a software engineering with the School of Information Science & Learning Technologies (SISLT) in the College of Education, Joe Griffith, a computer scientist and graduate student with SISLT, Zhiyu “Eric” Huo, an ECE graduate student, and Shining Sun, an ECE senior. Not pictured is ECE master’s student Anup Mishra.

Adolescent female athletes are at increased risk for anterior cruciate ligament tears, a common knee injury referred to as an ACL injury. Young women are four to six times more likely to tear their ACLs than their male counterparts according to an interview on KFRU-AM 1400 news radio based in Columbia, Mo.

Aaron Gray, an assistant professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Orthopaedics at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, and Marjorie Skubic, MU professor of electrical and computer engineering, have joined forces with a diverse group of faculty and student researchers to study the problem with a goal of identifying at-risk athletes in order to intervene before they injure themselves. An ACL injury takes up to nine months to heal and 50 percent of those who experience such an injury will develop arthritis in the injured knee within 10 to 15 years.

Gray said that added to the fact that adolescent young women’s core muscles are weaker then their male counterparts, as girls go through puberty, they tend to land with stiff knees and with their knees together.

“Strengthening muscles on the side of the hip can help, but teaching them to land with knees and hips directly over their feet would provide a much softer landing,” said Gray. “Physical therapists and certified athletic trainers can work to strengthen these muscles.”

One of Skubic’s ongoing research projects involves fall risk assessment in elderly adults, and she and the students working in her lab have developed a simple and inexpensive depth camera-screening tool using the Kinect motion sensor, which is part of the Xbox game system.

“The Kinect depth camera produces an image that shows each pixel’s depth in relationship to every other pixel,” said Skubic, explaining how the camera can reveal what is basically a 3D image of the subject being monitored.

“It’s a small device that can be plugged into a USB port on a computer,” said Skubic. “And it’s portable, so we can take it around to gyms.”

The pair noted that a standard motion capture system can cost $150,000 and in preparation for this project, they have used such a system to validate Skubic’s Kinect system results.

The researchers will be using the system to monitor 200 to 300 young women in Columbia and surrounding counties who play basketball and soccer. They intend to capture their motion as though they were jumping to grab a rebound in basketball and will follow them over a year to check their progress and observe whether they have injuries.

“This research will help keep players on the court and keep them well across their lifetimes,” Gray said. “An ACL injury is a lifelong issue. The knee is never the same.”

Skubic also is using the Kinect depth camera in collaboration with the MU School of Music to look at young pianists hands because hand position and posture also can cause problems.

“Depth cameras have revolutionized the kind of research we can do. It’s portable, inexpensive, easy to position and convenient,” Skubic said.