Arm control

Researchers at Nottingham University are using a robot to give stroke victims a helping hand by enabling them to learn to use healthy parts of their brain to carry out the tasks performed by other areas prior to being damaged.

A one-armed robot — part of a sophisticated system — allows medical staff to control and assess stroke rehabilitation therapies. There is a pressing need to learn how better to help patients because strokes are the leading cause of disability in the UK, with more than 100,000 each year suffering their first in England and Wales alone.

They lead to substantial disability and ill health, so a large slice of the NHS budget, £2.3 bn and 12 per cent of general medical beds, is spent on treatment. Of the 65 per cent of first stroke survivors living independently, a third will be significantly disabled and need help with day-to-day activities.

That’s why Nottingham’s Prof Stephen Jackson is researching the effectiveness of robot-assisted shaping therapy. His team in the psychology department is evaluating the robotic system as a tool for therapists, to see if it can improve the quality of life for thousands of patients.

The carbon fibre robot arm is programmed to assist patients as they attempt to carry out simple movements, such as reaching to touch an object. It has a shoulder and elbow joint, and the patient grasps a handle where the robot hand might be.

The powered robot arm can provide either a resisting force or a guiding force, to encourage the patient’s own arm to describe specific therapeutic movements. Jackson believes undamaged parts of the brain can learn to control limbs if the shaping therapies are repeated sufficiently often. If he’s right, then physiotherapists could soon be using robots to treat stroke patients.

‘We suggest that the use of robot-assisted shaping therapy will substantially improve upper limb function and will provide a valuable tool for therapists, providing increased capacity to manage appropriate movement practice,’ said Jackson. In the project, the patient doesn’t actually see the robot. Instead, a realistic computer-generated image is projected on to a mirror so that the medics can control what the patient can see.

The BUPA Foundation has awarded the team £127,476, and a second robot arm has been ordered to extend research. Now Jackson is seeking industry help in the building of a pneumatically-activated robot arm.

‘We would like to have one for inside an MRI scanner so we can see in real-time which patients are benefiting from the different shaping therapies,’ he said.