June 1, 2005 Stroke survivors can often recover the use of a paralyzed arm, but it's a slow process. This could become easier with a new system made of a robotic arm and virtual reality software. The robot assists the motion of the patient's arm, and the patient tracks it on a computer screen, using this feedback to relearn different tasks.
TEMPE, Ariz.--It strikes without warning and can kill within seconds. Over 750,000 Americans suffer a stroke each year. Most survive, but many are left unable to walk or use their arms. Now a discovery and breakthrough in science could change their lives.
Step-by-step, Jerry Smith is moving closer to getting his life back. "I played golf," he says. "I played with my grandkids. I ran." Two months ago, Smith's life took a drastic turn. "I couldn't talk at all. I couldn't move this arm or this leg."
Smith is one of almost 5 million stroke survivors struggling to relearn the basics. This new device -- that uses audio and visual cues -- could help him.
Dubbed RUPERT -- which stands for robotic upper extremity repetitive therapy -- it's designed to help stroke patients regain the energy of motion in their arms.
Bioengineer Jiping He, of Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz.., and his colleagues at Kinetic Muscles Incorporated created the robotic arm and this virtual reality screen to work together. "The motion of your arm, assisted by RUPERT, is picked up and displayed on the computer," Dr. He tells DBIS.
This robotic arm's four muscles use compressed air to help patients move their shoulders, elbows and wrists. The goal? To reach for a cup on the table.
"The smoother, faster you move, the louder, more continuous pleasant music will play back," Dr. He says.
But when the movement is jerky or too slow, the music isn't as comforting. New research is proving by repeating the motion, stroke survivors can recover much faster.
Dr. He is hoping RUPERT will become part of stroke survivors' therapy and affordable enough they will be able to use it at home. It could be available to the public in three years.
BACKGROUND: Researchers at Arizona State University are working with a local company to develop a robotic arm to help stroke survivors regain the ability to perform basic tasks, such as reaching for objects and feeding themselves. The rehab device would assist in task-oriented repetitive therapy, a common treatment for stroke survivors.
ABOUT STROKE: Stroke is a type of cardiovascular disease that affects the arteries leading to and from the brain. When one of these becomes blocked, or bursts, blood and oxygen can't get to that part of the brain and it begins to die. Strokes can cause paralysis, affect language and vision, and lead to memory loss. Stroke kills nearly 163,000 people every year; it is the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer.
HOW IT WORKS: The robotic arm is powered by four muscles which use air pressure to move pistons up and down. It is designed to assist movement at the shoulder, elbow and wrist. Researchers studied a model of the arm to determine where to locate the muscles, and how much force was needed to produce normal reaching and feeding movements.
BENEFITS: Recent research suggests that stroke survivors can recover significant use of their arms by performing repetitive motor function exercises over a period of time, but physical therapy is expensive. A device that can be used at home is a more cost-effective approach. The robotic arm can mimic the fluid, natural way the arm extends using air-powered muscles. It is adjustable to accommodate different arm lengths and body sizes, and can also be programmed for repetitive exercises specific to the individual user, in order to improve arm and hand flexibility and strength.
WHERE TO FIND IT: Kinetic Muscles, Inc. in Tempe, Arizona, is currently producing prototypes for the project, dubbed RUPERT (Robotic Upper Extremity Repetitive Therapy). The company currently markets a device for hand rehabilitation in stroke survivors.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.