Johns Hopkins scientist studied the brain and touch, worked on advanced prosthetics

July 4, 2014

Steven S. Hsiao, a Johns Hopkins University scientist and professor who studied the way the brain processes touch and worked on the use of highly advanced prosthetics, died June 16 at a hospital in Baltimore. He was 59.

The cause was attributed to complications of lung cancer, said a sister, Dr. Dorothy Hsiao.

Hopkins colleagues said Dr. Hsiao worked in basic science involving the brain, leading to advancements in complex information-processing. His studies were also practical in that they sought ways for developing the technology to create artificial limbs that would convey the impulses to give amputees a sense of touch.

Steven Shih-ting Hsiao was born in Washington on June 7, 1955, and raised in Silver Spring, Md. He was a resident of Baltimore. His father had been a minister of highways for the Chinese Nationalist government and was also a United Nations delegate. His mother was a research chemist.

The younger Hsiao received a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Duke University in 1976 and 1978, respectively. He received a doctorate in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins in 1990.

According to a biography supplied by Hopkins, he became a research fellow in biomedical engineering and neuroscience and joined the faculty, becoming a full professor in 2007. He was also a chaired professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and served as co-director of Hopkins’s neuroscience graduate program.

Dr. Hsiao was also the scientific director of the Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, where he guided overall research, hiring and student affairs.

Colleagues said Dr. Hsiao’s research expanded into new fields. Ed Connor, the Mind/Brain Institute director, said Dr. Hsiao studied how individuals possess the “remarkable ability to recognize objects with our hands alone.”

He also studied the science behind the ability to tell silk from linen and how people perceive objects that move across their skin. The National Institutes of Health supported his research for two decades.

“He was working on the use of prosthetics that would give signals back to the brain,” said Richard L. Huganir, a Hopkins colleague.“He studied the neurons that are activated in response to touch and then transmitted to the brain.”

His colleagues said this research concentrated on four aspects of tactile perception: spatial form, texture, vibration and the mechanism and role of selective attention in processing physical sensation.

“Touch is emotionally loaded for humans,” he was quoted as saying, “because it is the most immediate, the least abstract, of the five senses.”

Survivors include his wife of 18 years, Dr. Jocelyne DiRuggiero, and two sons, Kevin Hsiao and Andrew Hsiao, all of Baltimore; two brothers; and four sisters, including Ann S. Hsiao of Rockville, Md., and Dorothy Hsiao of Bethesda, Md.

In 2012, he worked with staff members at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore on an exhibition, “Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture.”

“Visitors to the Walters will be asked to hold replicas of famous artworks, some of which have been modified. They’ll be asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how enjoyable it is to handle statues with rough or smooth surfaces, statues that vary in how much they are curved, and statues of different sizes and shapes,” the Baltimore Sun reported at the time.

“Steven Hsiao is in the midst of a four-year research project,” the article added. “He’s trying to pin down whether touching certain objects generates identifiable patterns of neural activity that people find pleasurable, and whether those configurations are activated when humans encounter great works of art.”

In the article, he said that “people enjoy laying their heads on soft pillows and stroking a cat’s silky fur because they cause neurons in the brain to fire at a relatively low, but constant rate. We perceive this as restful and soothing and, hence, enjoyable.”

— Baltimore Sun

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