Kinesiology Wellness Research

August 14, 2014

Three separate grants in the School of Kinesiology— Wei Liu combines engineering, biomechanics in rehabilitation and wellness research
Wei Liu
Wei Liu

Wei Liu, an assistant professor in the School of Kinesiology in Auburn University’s College of Education, is the recent recipient of three separate grants. The grants are all related to the biomechanical aspects of total wellness, but concentrate on the diverse areas of cancer, multiple sclerosis, and sports medicine.

Wei combined his undergraduate kinesiology studies from the Beijing University of Physical Education with a master’s in biomedical engineering from the University of Vermont. He went on to receive his Ph.D in Physical Rehabilitation Science at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine in order to gain a broad-based understanding of how he could apply biomechanical engineering approach to physical rehabilitation.

“My intention was always to develop a diverse set of applied and academic skills, because total rehabilitation requires engineering applications,” Wei said. “Movement and physical rehabilitation have their place in the medical field along with medicine and surgery. Our disciplines now collaborate more closely than ever before.”

Wei came to Auburn in the fall of 2013. He teaches undergraduate biomechanics classes and special topics for graduate students in addition to his research.

“Here in our new Kinesiology Building I have what I call my home-base lab,” Wei said. “This is a fully-equipped kinesiology lab with ten high-speed infrared motion-caption cameras and two force plates. This equipment allows us to study the force and movement of people who are either standing or moving on the plates, from which we can capture a wide range of data for research and analysis.”

A second capacity for Wei’s “home-base” lab is that it can capture real-time biofeedback features.

“The unique thing here is that our mechanisms show biomechanical feedback risk factors as it applies to various motion activities by the human body. There are similarly-equipped labs at Harvard and Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, but that’s it. We are very fortunate here at Auburn to have these world-class facilities in our wonderful new building.”

Wei also works out of the Performance and Health and Human Optimization Lab in the newly-opened Auburn MRI Research Center.

“Here we have the capacity to observe changes of movement, and how those changes affect brain activity,” he said. “Our muscles control our bodily mechanics, but our Central Nervous System sends the motor commands to move those muscles. In the Performance and Health and Human Optimization Lab we have a non-invasive EEG cap that can capture brain activity as it corresponds with the simultaneous muscle movement.”

“Again, we are one of the very few labs in the country with this capacity,” Wei said. “The others are the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of Michigan. Auburn is an exciting place to do research, and that atmosphere is growing here in Kinesiology. Our scientific infrastructure is helping us attract competitive research projects in this area, as well as the top people in the field, including researchers in a broad array of medical and engineering disciplines.”

Grants as diverse as the labs

Wei is currently pursuing research funded by three separate grants. The first grant is from the Auburn University Research Initiative in Cancer (AURIC).

“My research here deals with cancer survivors, combining aspects of kinesiology with the non-pharmacological approach,” he said. “We want to help cancer survivors learn how certain forms of exercise can help in their long-term recovery and wellness. My research in this case is focused on the upper extremities of the body.”

As the holistic medical model gains traction, Wei’s research will target the field of physical rehabilitation and show, in his words, that “exercise is medicine.” This approach is appealing on many levels, especially in the sense that exercise is far less expensive than drugs and invasive chemical or surgical treatments. Wei believes the new Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine will be a natural partner in future research collaborations.

Wei’s second research area is funded by a highly-competitive grant he was awarded by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS).

“The NMSS is looking for high-risk, high-reward types of research proposals,” he said. “They want to see something brand new. MS patients are bothered by pain, muscle weakness and fatigue and we have drugs that can help control that. But the drugs do not necessarily modify the MS patient’s biomechanical movements which could improve daily living function such as walking. Our novel biomechanical approach is called induced acceleration analysis (IAA). Although IAA has not been tested in the MS population, this approach has been validated and applied in tasks involving normal walking and arm reaching by our previous research. Our research findings will lay the foundation for future clinical trials that target more efficient intervention for patients with MS.”

The project involves recruiting 20 people who have MS. Wei’s lab will use biomechanical modeling to help patients learn movement strategies that will improve several aspects of walking function. Wei will collaborate on the grant with Dr. Tom Denney of Auburn MRI research center and Dr. Emily Riser of Birmingham’s Tanner Center for Multiple Sclerosis.

“We are very excited about the possibilities of our work on this grant,” Wei said. “If we are successful, as I believe we will be, this will get us a ‘parking pass’ in the big world of medical grants as they relate to biomechanics and holistic health.”

Finally, Wei is also at work on Phase One of a research contract with the Dr. James Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine.

“In this work we are looking at athletic shoe designs in regard to balance, ankle stability, and injury prevention,” Wei said. “This is a nice translation of the kind of work we do here at Auburn, and how it can impact the larger world of athletic health. Dr. Andrews is a famous, respected orthopaedic surgeon. He will use our research and speak up for our findings once we provide him with the scientific evidence. I truly believe this will eventually have a broad clinical impact.”

Interdisciplinary collaborations mark Wei’s work

“We are putting forth a lot of effort here at Auburn to link different disciplines for a common goal of better health and performance,” Wei said. “Auburn has traditionally strong programs in engineering and pharmacy, and we are about to open the new Via College of Osteopathic Medicine. I feel that our work can be huge part of making Auburn a unique attraction in the research world.”

Wei believes he has already seen the wheels starting to turn.

“In my work alone I deal in the disciplines of engineering, biomechanics, neurology, as well as the traditional areas of kinesiology and wellness. Within the School of Kinesiology we have many others areas of research emphasis in addition to what I do. In my labs I am fortunate to work with talented graduate students and undergrads from the Honors College. Also, I am able to collaborate with faculty members from many other areas of the University who bring great insight to the work we are doing. I feel certain that these collaborations will lead us to new areas of research and continue to attract funding and top faculty members. I think our future here at Auburn is very bright.”

Wei Liu at computer

Story and Photos by George Littleton