Software package aids motor recovery in stroke patients

A stroke rehabilitation system where patients play intuitive video games with a robotic arm brace for neuromuscular feedback has been developed by an international team.

Researchers at Ulster University’s School of Computing and Information Engineering and School of Health Science designed the virtual environment games to simulate daily activities such as washing and dressing.

The software package, called myGames, can be used alone with a webcam or in conjunction with a robotic arm designed by Myomo, a US company spun out from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

‘The goal we had was to design something that was usable by people in their own home, much like the [Nintendo] Wii and the [Microsoft] Kinect,’ said Dr Michael McNeill of Ulster.

‘What we found when we looked at a lot of these commercial games is that the pace and design are not suitable for something as unique as motor-function rehab, so we stripped down the problem and looked intensely at the principles of game design, in particular feedback and challenge,’ he added.

Performing basic repetitive movements has been clinically proven to promote motor recovery in stroke patients and the current project aims to build on this. For patients with particularly severe disability, Myomo’s mPower 1000 robotic arm can be used with myGames.

The device has sensors that sit on the skin’s surface and detect even a very faint muscle signal. When a person with a weak or partially paralysed arm tries to move, and a muscle signal fires in the arm, the robotics in the device engage to assist in completing the desired movement.  

‘If you have a really severe deficit you tend to be disenfranchised. It’s all very well the physiotherapist saying: “reach for that ball or put that cup over there”, but it can be difficult to get any feeling of accomplishment, so the robotic brace and the games are designed to give powerful assistance to that,’ said McNeill.