Robotics engineers of Rice University and doctors of Memorial Hermann TIRR hospital, jointly to develop a computer-based robotic system for physical rehabilitation.
"It can take months of physical therapy for stroke patients to regain the use of their limbs. We hope to refine our system to allow patients to recover faster and to allow therapists to more precisely monitor patients' recovery," said system architect Marcia O'Malley, director of Rice's Mechatronics and Haptic Interfaces Laboratory (MAHI).
AdvertisementThe investigators recently began a two-year study of a prototype rehabilitation system developed at MAHI that uses a joystick to help patients with eye-to-hand coordination. Sixteen patients were involved in the study.
The rehab program uses force-feedback technology called "haptics" that allow people to "feel" their environment while they are in virtual reality.
In the exercise, the patients use the joystick to move an object from one part of the computer screen to another. The joystick is outfitted with motors that push the stick to resist moves in the wrong direction.
Repeating the exercise over and over may help patients learn to control the objects on the screen in a smooth, precise way.
"We're interested in measuring how smooth the movements are, compared to what might be optimal," said O'Malley, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science.
"The computer can precisely measure how a patient responds to every single exercise. This lets the doctors and physical therapists know exactly what their patient most needs to work on. This precise, measurable feedback provides a great advantage over the subjective evaluations currently in use," she added.
Though computer-controlled robots have been in use for physical rehabilitation since the early 1990s, O'Malley says that the technology has been too expensive to use on a large scale.
She believes that systems like the one developed by her team may one day change the whole scenario.
O'Malley said that patients' enthusiasm for the technology was one reason for its possible success in the days to come.
"The patients who get a chance to try this tend to get very excited," said O'Malley, who has previously worked with doctors and patients from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"I've been inspired to see how hard patients are willing to work to regain their mobility, and our technology really plays to that strength. The machine never gets tired. It allows them to work as long and as hard as they want," she added.
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