Robots Could Help Stroke Patients Recover

Mike Dixon
Mike Dixon

Physical therapists in the Texas Medical Center are testing how a robotic device could help stroke patients with rehabilitation. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson has more.

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Mike Dixon had a stroke a few years ago while recovering from bypass surgery. He was 61 years old at the time and led a very active lifestyle. After the stroke, he had almost no mobility on his right side and had to relearn how to function.

"Things you do take for granted. Just everything -- brushing your teeth, button your shirt, putting on your shoes to turning faucets on and things like that -- just everyday life."

Dixon is a patient at TIRR, The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research. His doctors considered him a good candidate for a small clinical trial of a robotic device. The device looks like a video game joystick, only it costs about $4,000. It's connected to a computer software program. Rice University Assistant Professor Marcia O'Malley designed the robotic prototype. She says the patient attempts to move the joystick to hit a target on a computer screen.

"Sometimes impairment from stroke is weakness. And so you might not be able to, for example in a mode where we provide a resistance force, it might be difficult to expend that effort to move the joystick. You might have range of motion limitations and so actually reaching the target could be difficult. Also, if I were to just plot a line from my starting position to the ending position, that line for somebody who's had a stroke would not be straight."

The joystick is connected to motors. So if the patient is having trouble finding the target or controlling the device, the motors provide resistance and gently force the patient to move in the correct direction. This helps patients develop muscle strength, control and hand-eye coordination. Dr. Corwyn Boake is a neuropsychologist at TIRR.

"We're looking for efficiency because in the long run we could -- it might be possible to do some of the therapy with a robot instead of having to ask somebody to drive in to the therapy center. Some day we may be able to put a small robot in their home. Some day we might be able to have it in a nursing home or a place where there aren't enough therapists."

Boake says since the device is connected to a computer, they're also able to precisely measure how much improvement a patient is making. TIRR is starting a two-year trial on 16 patients. It's funded by a grant from the TIRR Foundation and Boake says they hope to document enough patient improvement to garner federal funding and large-scale clinical trials within a few years. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.


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