Robotics and rehabilitation

December 4, 2008 by  

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The field of robotics can help improve rehabilitation techniques for stroke patients. This is according to researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Using a hand operated device that work together with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers could “look” into the brain of stroke victims to see how and whether they can be rehabilitated.

It was previously thought that rehabilitation is only possible three to six months after the occurrence of the stroke. Once this “short window of opportunity” is missed, rehabilitation can become very difficult, maybe even impossible. Using the new method, the researchers found out this is not always the case.

We have shown that the brain has the ability to regain function through rehabilitative exercises following a stroke,” said A. Aria Tzika, Ph.D., director of the NMR Surgical Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Shriners Burn Institute and assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “We have learned that the brain is malleable, even six months or more after a stroke, which is a longer period of time than previously thought.”

80 to 90% of surviving stroke patients suffer from brain damage that can motor problems. When the right side of the brain is damaged, the left side of the body is affected and when it is the left side of the brain, then the right side of the body is affected. The study looked at 5 patients who suffered from stroke 6 months before or even earlier, suffered damage to the left side of the brain and thus lost the ability to use their right hands efficiently.

The patients were made to squeeze a special MRI-compatible robotic device. They performed this exercise for 2one hour, 3 days a week for the duration of four weeks. Using fMRI, brain acitivity was assessed by measuring changes in blood oxygenation.

The results showed that rehabilitation using hand training significantly increased activation in the cortex, which is the area in the brain that corresponds with hand use. Furthermore, the increased cortical activation persisted in the stroke patients who had exercised during the training period but then stopped for several months.

This gives hope to millions of stroke victims worldwide. In the US alone, about 700,000 strokes occur annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is the third leading cause of mortality in the US. It also causes long term disabilities that range from mild to very severe.

Photo credit: stock.xchng

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