J. Thomas Mortimer

Opatija, The Applied Neural Control Laboratory and then……the expansion phase of Vodovnik’s neural bypass idea at CWRU and the effect of its legacy on the treatment of Neurologic Disorders

J. Thomas Mortimer, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Biomedical Engineering,
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio, USA


This talk[i] will explore the fascinating history of electrical devices for treating neurological disorders, with a particular focus on the pioneering work done at Case Western Reserve University. We will begin by discussing Lojze Vodovnik’s early experiments on electric stimulation of muscles. He used electrodes placed on the skin over the target muscle but encountered a problem that threatened to halt the development of functional devices for paralyzed patients: an electrically stimulated muscle fatigues too quickly to provide useful function to a paralyzed subject.

We will then shift to James B. Reswick’s Cybernetic Systems Group, which developed percutaneous wire electrodes to record EMG to control Case Research Arm-Aid, leading to an irresistible opportunity for an external stimulator to be connected to the electrode implanted in his (JBR’s) muscle. This experiment became a pivotal moment, transitioning the work at Case from surface stimulation to percutaneous wires connected to electrodes inside the body, in and around target neural tissues.

One of the most exciting moments in this journey was the birthing of the Applied Neural Control Laboratory, which came to life following a breakthrough solution to the rapid fatigue problem. During his postdoctoral fellowship in Sweden, the author had an ah ha moment: the easily fatigable muscle fibers were the first to be recruited with electrical stimulation which is opposite to the natural recruitment order where they are the last as more strength is demanded. The proposed solution to this problem was electrically induced exercise to build fatigue resistance in the paralyzed muscles.  Hunter Peckham[ii] demonstrated that electrically induced muscle exercise would improve the fatigue resistance and took that knowledge on to realize Vodovnik’s neural bypass in his development of the FES Center at CWRU. The FES Center and other investigator named laboratories grew into globally recognized research organizations focusing on restoring function to patients with paralysis, while the ANCL continued to train graduate students, nurture young faculty development, and develop neuroprosthetic devices for various neurological impairments.

We will conclude by highlighting the current work of hundreds of people and the many labs at Case and associated with Case, dedicated to restoring function to patients with paralysis and limb loss. From advances in brain-machine interfaces to the development of new implantable devices, the field of electrical devices for neurological disorders continues to push boundaries and improve lives. We want the world to know that it was through Lojze Vodovnik’s seeding of the idea of restoring function to paralyzed people by electrically activating muscle was what gave birth to the remarkable work in this area at Case Western Reserve University.



[i] ANCtoolkit.com is a repository of knowledge that was acquired by the author over a fifty plus year period. The section “Moonshine Factory” contains historical material that relates directly to critical players in the electrical stimulation of neural tissues movement.  The knowledge base is free but requires creating an account with a password.

[ii] Peckham, P.H., Mortimer, J.T., Van Der Meulen, J.P., “Physiologic and Metabolic Changes in White Muscle of Cat Following Induced Exercise,” Brain Research, 50, p. 424-429, 1973.

J. Thomas Mortimer, Ph.D.

Pre-Vodovnik Era: Vocational Education, Amarillo High School, specialty in Automobile Mechanic, 1955-57. Auto Mechanic, 1957-62. Engineer in training, Pantex Atomic Energy Commission, 1963. Texas Technological College, BSEE, 1964.
Vodovnik Era: Case Institute of Technology, MS in Engineering, 1964-59. Case Western Reserve University, Ph.D. Biomedical Engineering, 1968.
Post-Vodovnik Era: Chalmers Tekniska Högskola, Post-Doctoral Fellow, 1968-69. Case Western Reserve University, Assistant, Associate, Full Professor of Biomedical Engineering, 1969-2002, Emeritus Professor of Biomedical Engineering, 2002-present.  Humboldt-Preis, Karlsruhe, Germany, 1976-77.  Visiting Scholar Tohoko University, Sendai, Japan, 1992.
North American Neuromodulation Society, Lifetime Achievement Award, 2021.

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