April 19, 2010

Robot Helps Stroke Patients

A US study has found that intensive therapy using robots has helped patients improve arm movement years after suffering a stroke.

Researchers from Brown University provided three months of training with the machine.

After using the technology, many patients had improved quality of life, according to their report which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. UK experts told BBC News that the advances were "exciting", but added that robots were still in the early development stages.

People can experience long-lasting disabilities after having a stroke, which can include weakness in the limbs and limited movement. Therapy, when started as soon as possible after a stroke, can maximize the amount of movement that is recoverable. However, providing the therapy needed for at least one hour per patient per day is a huge demand for the NHS.

Using machines to help patients with therapy provides a possible solution.

The Brown University trial tested a device called the MIT-Manus, specifically designed to help exercise the upper limbs.

The robot works by having the patient place their upper arm in the device, and then the patient is instructed to perform tasks using that arm. The robot senses the movement and helps if required. The device has been described as "power-steering" for arms.

The study tested 127 patients who, on average, had suffered a stroke five years earlier. The patients were divided into three groups. Group one received robot therapy over a three month period. Group two received an equivalent therapy with a physiotherapist, and Group 3 received normal healthcare, with no intensive therapy.

Both group 1 and 2 had significantly improved upper-arm function, measured by how much better they could perform everyday tasks such as using utensils, opening jars, and tying shoelaces.

The improvements have delighted researchers -- given the period of time between the stroke and when treatments were administered during the research.

"We've shown that with the right therapy [patients] can see improvements in movement, everyday function and quality of life - this is giving stroke survivors new hope," said Dr. Albert Lo, who led the study.

Experts are now hoping for a day to come where smaller versions of the robots can be made for people to use every day in their own homes. But they realize the technology is still in its infancy and it will most likely be several years before the advances can be used full-scale.


Image Caption: A patient uses a robotic therapy device invented at MIT. The robotic joystick guides the patient's arm as he tries to move the robot handle toward a moving or stationary target shown on the computer monitor. If the person starts moving in the wrong direction or does not move, the robotic arm gently nudges his arm in the right direction. Photo: Department of Veterans Affairs


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