Robot Developed at U of G Helps Stroke Patients Recover
Guelph - Physiotherapists working with patients recovering from a stroke may soon be able to enlist a robotic helper developed by scientists at the University of Guelph and tested with human patients at Hamilton Health Sciences.
A team of researchers led by U of G engineering professor Hussein Abdullah has been developing the technology for seven years. It puts a robot to work with patients who have had a stroke, helping them with exercises designed to restore the function of their upper limbs. The project is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).
Used for the first time in Canada in an inpatient environment, the robot proved to be as effective as conventional treatment in an experimental trial involving 15 participants in the rehabilitation program at Hamilton Health Sciences.
“The robot has not been designed to replace the physiotherapist,” said Abdullah, adding the therapist can “teach” the robot to perform specific exercises. “It is a tool that therapists can use to help them do their jobs more efficiently and offer patients the most effective treatment.”
Rather than start from scratch, Abdullah’s team took an off-the-shelf industrial robot and modified it for the delicate task of working with humans and providing intensive functional therapy. Hamilton Health Sciences physiotherapists Cynthia Lambert and Susan Barreca provided the expertise about the patterns of movement that could be used to help patients recover mobility in their partially paralyzed arms. They worked with the robot in trials at the clinic for more than 18 months, mostly with patients over 65, testing and refining the exercises developed and programmed by the engineers at Guelph.
“Rehabilitation is embarking on an exciting new area of treatment using innovative technologies,” said Barreca. “I’m thrilled to be involved in this partnership because what we’re doing will result in better care and a speedier recovery for our patients.”
The robot’s novel and intelligent user-friendly design employs sophisticated sensors and computer programming to re-create the movement patterns of human limbs up, down, side-to-side, flexing, extending and rotating.
“Patients are responding well to the robotic treatment and are making remarkable progress, which they attribute to the robot,” said Barecca. “Traditionally, arms and hands don’t get as much attention as legs during rehabilitation. But patients can work independently with the robot, allowing more opportunity for additional motor learning. Ultimately, they’ll take less time to recover.”
The clinical trial compared a physiotherapist’s conventional treatment with therapy using the robot. Half the patients used the robot for three sessions per week until discharge. The other half received conventional therapy. The results showed that clients who received only the robotic treatment for their arm did as well as those receiving conventional treatment. A larger study is now being planned to verify these findings.
In the first level of the program, the passive mode, the robot does all the work, moving the patient’s arms to mimic daily functions such as grabbing a cup or dialing a phone. At the next level, the active assist mode, the robot assists only when it senses the patient needs help with a particular movement. At the third level, the patient does all the work. As the patient progresses, the robot can be set to exert some resistance to develop the muscles and reactivate the parts of the brain damaged by the stroke. At the fourth level, the therapist can further customize the robot’s programming to meet the individual patient’s needs and abilities. Throughout the process, the robot captures the data of all the forces at work in all the joints.
“That way the caregiver can see on a daily basis whether there is any improvement and adjust the exercises accordingly,” said Abdullah, who hopes to conduct a larger trial soon involving more patients. “This research will lead to a new medical device that will help the health-care system address the rising cost of providing rehabilitation services and make Canada a leader in therapeutic robotics.”