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Robotic Technology

Robotic therapy

By Lisa Rummler

November 2009 - A visit to a hospital usually yields a slew of sights and sounds: monochromatic medical scrubs, florescent lights, the squeak of sneakers, stretchers being wheeled down halls--all with an underlying aroma of rubbing alcohol mixed with cafeteria food.

There's a decidedly human quality to all of these things and to hospitals in general. This isn't to say, though, that technology doesn't have its place in medical establishments.

Hospitals use machines every day, from respirators to heart monitors to external defibrillators. Since the late 1980s, robots have been on that list, thanks to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology[http://web.mit.edu], Cambridge, Mass.

Specifically, students and faculty at MIT helped develop and institute robotic therapy to assist patients to relearn how to control their arms and legs, with the initial efforts focusing on stroke patients.

Today, the researchers have expanded their horizons to include children with cerebral palsy and brain injuries, according to Hermano Igo Krebs, principal research scientist in mechanical engineering and one of the project's leaders.

"We started with stroke because it's the biggest elephant in the room, and then [we] started building it out to other areas, including cerebral palsy, as well as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injury," he said in a press release. "Robotic therapy can potentially help reduce impairment and facilitate neurodevelopment of youngsters with cerebral palsy."

Wide range
More than 600 stroke patients have participated in clinical trials over the past 15-plus years for the shoulder-and-elbow, wrist, hand and ankle robots from MIT. "All the devices are based on the same principle: that it is possible to help rebuild brain connections using robotic devices that gently guide the limb as a patient tries to make a specific movement," according to the press release.

Because children's brains are still developing and more malleable than the brain of an adult, they might be able to establish a larger number of new neural pathways.

Thus, Krebs and his team were optimistic that robotic therapy would work at least as well for children with cerebral palsy as it has for adults who have had strokes.

MIT initially partnered with Blyhedale Children's Hospital, Valhalla, N.Y., Bambino Gesu Hospital, Rome, and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Boston, and more recently with Riley Hospital for Children, Indianapolis, to test the robotic devices with cerebral palsy patients.

"The MIT team is focusing on improving cerebral palsy patients' ability to reach for and grasp objects," according to the press release. "Patients handshake with a robot via a handle, which is connected to a computer monitor that displays tasks similar to those of a simple video game.

"In a typical task, the youngster attempts to move the robot handle toward a moving or stationary target shown on the computer monitor. If the child starts moving in the wrong direction or does not move, the robotic arm gently nudges the child's arm in the right direction."

Results from pilot studies are promising--they show that the therapy has helped reduce impairment for children with cerebral palsy, as well as improve the smoothness and speed of their reaching motions.

And looking ahead, Krebs and his team have laid the foundation to begin designing a pediatric robot for the ankle, according to the press release. FFJ

To watch a video of the robotic therapy for children with cerebral palsy, visit http://meche.mit.edu/news/mechenews/index.html?id=44.

Sources

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    Cambridge, Mass.
    www.mit.edu

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