Many Hands Make Light Work: Robotic Therapy to Help Stroke Patients

Tuesday, December 14 2010


Written by Amanda Cairo

MOSCOW, Idaho – Putting on a coat may not seem like a large achievement, but new technology that could help stroke patients do just that now makes the act an attainable goal.

University of Idaho’s Eric Wolbrecht, mechanical engineering assistant professor, is developing a robotic hand exoskeleton to help stroke patients regain some mobility after suffering from a stroke.

“We’re talking about small changes so they can get some functionality back,” he said. “But even that small improvement can mean a lot to someone.”

Wolbrecht earned a $380,000, 5-year grant for the University of Idaho as part of a larger grant from the National Institutes of Health. He is working with a professor and doctor at University of California Irvine and a professor with Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya – BarcelonaTech in Spain on a larger scale project to study robotic hand therapy for persons who have suffered a stroke.

As far as Wolbrecht’s participation, he and his team are building 10 tabletop robotic hand devices that will allow participants in the study to use the device for physical therapy in their homes. The tabletop exoskeleton will help patients train with several different motions, like grasp and pinch. The group is looking to use computer games and music to help make the exercises engaging and fun.

Wolbrecht said benefits of robotic therapy include repeatability in the delivered therapy, the capacity for large repetition and the ability to measure and track performance.

“A robotic hand can do something 1,000 times, but insurance doesn’t cover the expense of a physical therapist to do that,” said Wolbrecht. “I don’t expect robotics will ever replace a physical therapist, but this will help fill that need for more hours of training.”

While a robotic hand changes the rehabilitation therapy interaction from personal to machine, Wolbrecht said the use of such robotic devices will be guided by physical therapists.

The project has three aims: to define the role of correlated sensory motor activity in promoting use-dependent motor plasticity (find out how much we need movement); to identify the effect of training with increased motor output levels on motor recovery (how can the brain be rewired with movement); and to identify the effect of spared brain resources and the quantitative history of movement practice on the reserve capacity for use-dependent motor plasticity (what makes therapy effective).

As part of the grant, Wolbrecht is able to fund a doctoral student and has brought on a graduate student. Together, the project requires the development, construction and initial testing of the devices.

Once the robotic hand therapy devices are built, they will be sent to UC-Irvine for testing with patients. The patient’s ability will be measured before and after training with the robotic exoskeleton. Wolbrecht said robotic devices have been used for the last 20 years for rehabilitation, but this study focuses on determining which factors influence functional recovery.

“We’re getting into the fine aspects, like what claims can be made, the movement, the control, does the device really do more for you?” he said.

With baby boomers aging into the stroke risk age bracket and people living longer, Wolbrecht said the project has the potential to have a large impact.

“To be working on a project that helps people, where there is a specific need, is a great experience,” said Wolbrecht.
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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s land-grant institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year. The University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation classification for high research activity. The student population of 12,302 includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars, who select from more than 130 degree options in the colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences; Art and Architecture; Business and Economics; Education; Engineering; Law; Letters, Arts and Social Sciences; Natural Resources; and Science. The university also is charged with the statewide mission for medical education through the WWAMI program. The university combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities and focuses on helping students to succeed and become leaders. It is home to the Vandals, the 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl champions. For more information, visit www.uidaho.edu.




About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals, and competes in the Western Athletic Conference. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu.