Perpetual Motion

With a new lab, UM’s Matthew Bundle continues to innovate in biomechanics field

UM researcher Matt Bundle (left) works with exercise science grad students Tyler Gallo (center) and Riley Shaw on an experiment using a custom-built knee extension odometer.

By Chad Dundas

The platform doesn’t look like much. 

Just a piece of metal and plastic a little bit bigger than a bathroom scale — plenty wide enough to stand on but still so small and portable that it fits inside a normal airline carry-on bag. It has no visible buttons or lights, just a smooth silver body with a squat black box protruding from the front.

But, oh, the things it can do.

“With its accuracy, it’s one of a kind,” says UM Associate Professor Matthew Bundle as he briefly steps up onto the platform to demonstrate how it’s used.

Bundle is conducting a quick tour of his newly finished, 3,000-square-foot biomechanics laboratory in the basement of the Phyllis J. Washington Education Center. Now complete and fully operational, the lab qualifies as one of campus’ hidden gems. With its cutting-edge equipment, giving Bundle the ability to conduct experiments and take measurements few other facilities in the country can match, the lab not only advances research efforts, it elevates the University’s ability to compete for grants and makes UM that much more attractive to enterprise dollars.

Hence, the platform.

You might not know it at first glance, but the device Bundle stands on may one day be at the forefront of how medical personnel diagnose and grade different kinds of head trauma, including concussions in the field.

How does it work, exactly? Think of it as a really, really high-tech version of following the doctor’s penlight with your eyes. The platform is a force plate that measures tiny changes in posture that are too small to detect by eye or with a camera. The emerging consensus from clinicians and scientists working with concussion-type injuries is that the most promising way to determine injury severity is through motor-related testing. That’s exactly what Bundle’s force plate measures, except instead of having its subject stand on one foot and touch their nose, it quickly and accurately spools out heaps of high-quality data to a nearby laptop.

“We could show up at Maggotfest — the rugby tournament they hold here in Missoula — throw down a piece of plywood and in a minute be ready to take the kinds of measurements that you would only get at research-grade clinics,” he says.

The platform is mobile enough to transport easily to the sideline of a football game or ringside at a boxing match or, as Bundle points out, the trunk of a police car to be used during traffic stops. The key for the implementation of this technology will be understanding why the body moves in the ways that it does, and that’s where the unique features of Bundle’s lab comes in.

Planning the construction in the space began as soon as Bundle arrived at UM two years ago. He already had garnered recognition for his work in the widely publicized study of South African double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius, and was anxious to continue and expand on that work at Montana. Almost immediately he began working with Facilities Services and a local architectural firm to transform a storage room in the basement of the new education college building into a state-of-the-art facility. The process, while lengthy, went mostly smoothly, though Bundle says it would not have been completed without the leadership of UM President Royce Engstrom and the late Bob Duringer, vice president for administration and finance.

“I think what we did was put together a facility that we can be very proud of and one that serves the needs of both the research efforts that we undertake and the teaching mission that this space satisfies,” Bundle says. “There are a number of different techniques that we’ve put in place here that are new to the campus and, when everything is fully activated, are replicated in only a couple of different places around the world. So we’re excited about what we can do here.”

It’s not as though the basement room was highly sought-after when Bundle found it. Normally, a windowless, concrete room wouldn’t make a very inviting classroom, but it’s perfect for his purposes. When you’re running sensitive studies on athletes who have been known to exert forces against the ground that are five times their own body weight with every step, being in a room where the floor won’t vibrate is essential, even if it means spending most of your workday underground.

“I almost feel it’s a little bit like being in a casino sometimes,” Bundle jokes, about the lab’s boxy but well-lit interior. “You come outside and you’re like, ‘Oh, it rained, or it snowed, or it’s not light out anymore.’”

Just to the left of the concussion force plate is the high-speed treadmill, which runs up to 35 mph and allows Bundle and his team to log what he describes as “more footfalls than we could analyze in a year within about 20 minutes.” Near the middle of the room is another set of plates, these ones embedded into the floor, which are used to measure the amount of force a subject produces while taking a step. A couple of large, overstuffed backpacks lean against one wall, and on the opposite side of the room there is a standard ultrasound machine — like you might find in any cardiologist’s office. The adjoining conference room has glass walls, on which numerous scientific formulas are scribbled in dry erase marker.

Aside from his research into concussions, Bundle has two other ongoing major projects. One, which he works on alongside a student with a small grant from NASA, involves the study of how muscle becomes impaired during physical activity. In part, that includes trying to determine how the central nervous system detects fatigue in working tissue and then communicates with the muscular system to compensate for it. An offshoot of this research may reveal better ways to treat age-related muscle and bone loss, Bundle says, as well as having applications for humans involved in extended space flight such as the kind seen on the International Space Station.

“We found a very simple way to hugely boost the amount of force that muscle can generate and can continue to generate,” he says, adding that the lab currently has a paper under review on the topic. “We’re super excited about what those results mean and what they mean for the basic biology of what’s happening in the tissue. We think this opens up the possibility for many profound discoveries.”

The third area of Bundle’s research focuses on the limits of human gait, as well as the force exerted across muscle, bone and joints during physical activity such as walking and running. This work contributes to the Department of Health and Human Performance’s 50-year partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, as Bundle explores ways to lessen the physical burdens put on smokejumpers, who often are called upon to parachute into remote areas to fight fires before hiking out carrying massive amounts of gear. 

“Those guys can be carrying over a hundred pounds in their backpacks, no trails. I mean, it’s outrageous what they can do,” he says. “We’re excited to see if there are ways that from a muscular or an effort perspective that supporting those loads can be improved.”

A hidden gem: Three graduate students and 11 undergrads work in the Bundle biomechanics lab in the basement of the Phyllis J. Washington Education Center.In addition to all that work, Bundle also is in contact with the USA Track and Field Association, as well as the U.S. Olympic committee, looking for ways to improve the training regimens of American athletes. All of this work hits very close to home for him, as he says his interest in the biology and physics of how the body moves was stoked when he was the captain of the track and cross country teams at Harvard as an undergraduate.

Today, with his spacious, out-of-the-way lab completed, Bundle continues to work at the tip of the spear in the field of biomechanics. With a unique vision and state-of-the-art facilities, his research may well help UM keep pace with larger, better-funded institutions from coast to coast.

“One of the things I think we need to continue to do at UM is to do things better than our competitors around the country, because we’re never going to have the same size or the funds that some of these bigger schools have,” he says. “Maybe what we can do is take what we have and use it more effectively.”

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