Robots improve movement in stroke patients

November 09, 1999

Stroke patients aided by "robot therapists" gain significant improvements in movement, according to a study in the November 10 issue of Neurology, the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology. Results suggest that both initial and long-term recovery are greater for patients assisted by robots during rehabilitation.

To improve recovery of the shoulder and upper arm, neurologists teamed with engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to create an interactive "robot therapist." The robot was designed to help patients consistently exercise an arm paralyzed by stroke, even when patients cannot move the arm on their own.

"We are always searching for new ways to improve movement in people who are radically affected by stoke," neurologist and study author Bruce Volpe, MD, of the Burke Medical Research Institute in White Plains, NY. "The point of rehabilitation is to reduce disability and to help patients become more independent."

Researchers studied 20 people who, due to a stroke, lost some or all of the ability to move an arm. All patients participated in a focused, post-stroke rehabilitation program at the Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, NY, and received additional therapy either with a "robot therapist" or with a robot with no therapeutic qualities.

The "robot therapist" is a robotic device that sits on a desktop and looks like a motorized arm. A video screen prompts the person to perform an arm exercise such as connecting the dots or drawing the hands of a clock. If the movement does not occur, the robot moves the person's arm. If the person starts to move on their own during the robotic movement of the arm, the robot shuts off and allows the patient's movement to continue.

"Patients seemed to enjoy the movement exercises, possibly because of the novelty of the robots," said Volpe.

Patients who had robot therapy showed significantly greater improvement in shoulder and arm movement than those with no robot therapy. In re-evaluating 12 of the original 20 patients nearly three years later, researchers found that all patients had improvements in movement, however, those in the robot group again showed greater improvement than those with no robot therapy.

Movements such as reaching, sweeping, and support involve the shoulder and upper arm. "By improving movement in shoulder and upper arm, patients can do simple things like push objects across a table, use a computer mouse or write," said Volpe. "When you've lost the ability to move your arm, even small improvements are a success and an important first step."

Stroke can cause physical impairment such as paralysis, altered mental abilities and disturbances in vision, speech and language.

Research was supported by the Burke Medical Research Institute, the National Parkinson's Foundation and the National Stroke Foundation.
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The American Academy of Neurology, an association of more than 16,000 neurologists and neuroscience professionals, is dedicated to improving patient care through education and research.

American Academy of Neurology

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