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Brain-Controlled Home Rehab for Stroke in Development

Brain cell networks

(Gerd Altmann, Pixabay)

10 Oct. 2018. A robotic system for home use to help people recovering from a stroke regain use of their upper bodies is in development by an engineering lab, rehabilitation hospital, and 2 companies in Texas. The 3-year project led by University of Houston is funded by a $750,000 grant from National Science Foundation.

Stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, cutting the oxygen needed by brain cells to function. The vast majority (85%) of strokes are caused by blood clots, while many other strokes are caused by blood vessel leakage in the brain. Nearly 800,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke each year, with paralysis and weakness in the limbs among the results. Recovery, often in rehabilitation clinics, can take months or years of continuous exercises.

The program to develop a brain-controlled upper-limb robot-assisted rehabilitation device for stroke survivors is led by Houston engineering professor Jose Contreras-Vidal, co-director of the university’s Building Reliable Advances and Innovation in Neurotechnology, or Brain center, an NSF-funded lab shared with Arizona State University. While 8 in 10 stroke patients experience upper-limb weakness or paralysis of some kind, less than 2 in 10 (18%) experience full recovery, according to data cited by Contreras-Vidal and colleagues. At the same time, only about 3 in 10 people recovering from stroke (31%) receive outpatient rehabilitation.

The researchers are building a robotic system for in-home and clinical use that stroke survivors can control with their thoughts. The initial version of the system focuses on rehabilitating the individual’s upper limbs. The device resembles a rowing machine and is designed to build plasticity in the brain and restore motor functions in the hands and arms. The proposed system will be driven by thoughts captured from a device similar to an electroencephalogram or EEG to read changes in brain activity, with algorithms translating neural signals to robotic commands.

The system is also expected to collect data and monitor the user’s progress in real time, which will be fed back to the individual, as well as provide diagnostics for the physician. The project’s final deliverable is a safe, easy-to-use, and effective robotic rehab system that adapts to progress made by the user and provides data for rehab professionals monitoring that progress.

Contreras-Vidal’s lab in the Brain center studies methods for measuring neural activity in the brain and rehab devices to restore neural, motor, and sensory functions. Joining the team is the company Harmonic Bionics in Austin, a 2 year-old enterprise developing rehab robotics for stroke and spinal cord injury, expected to will build the actual device. Another partner in the project is National Instruments, an established engineering and instrumentation company, also in Austin, that will develop the brain-computer connection module, expected to resemble a headset. Also joining the project is the Houston rehabilitation hospital TIRR Memorial Hermann, a current collaborator with Contreras-Vidal, where the system will be tested.

“We want to break that wall between the lab and home,” says Contreras-Vidal in a university statement. “We want to build a system that can be used at home with FDA approval.”

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