Robotics in Human Rehabilitation

Every year, millions of people suffer from injuries that require long-term medical rehabilitation. The rehabilitation process is typically complex, with physical and psychological dimensions, and outcomes are often difficult to guarantee.

Through novel application of robotics technology, however, some aspects of rehabilitation may soon look very different. New medical robots are being developed to help people with a variety of medical conditions on their road to recovery.

Therapeutic Robots May Soon Assist Patients After Stroke

Stroke affects nearly 800,000 people per year in the United States. Stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is disrupted, and it often causes significant disability even in relatively minor cases. This makes stroke rehabilitation a major area of concern in advanced medical robotics.

Partnering with roboticists from MIT, researchers at the University of Washington have conducted research around therapeutic robots that help stroke patients in treatments essential to recovery of motor functions. Their initial findings have been promising.

The robotic devices, called MIT-Manus, provide assistance to help patients complete designated movements. They are capable of interpreting the levels of pressure a patient exerts to help with finishing or improving certain types of movement. They can also gently prompt movement.

So far, robotic tools have been shown to help stroke victims – even those for whom significant time has elapsed since their affliction.

Will Robots Facilitate Intensive Therapy for Locomotion?

Researchers associated with the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, are making discoveries in rehabilitation robotics that may prove essential to those who experience difficulties walking. Since 2009, they have focused on physiotherapy for the lower limbs.

Although people with locomotive difficulties benefit from intensive therapy, this often requires three or more experts to work together, and can be quite painful. Through the use of therapeutic robots, it may be possible for patients to extend the length of physical training sessions and oversee certain aspects of rehabilitation from home, even when an expert is not available to help them.

To realize this goal, prototype robotic exoskeletons using Central Pattern Generators have been developed. The current model, an exoskeletal elbow, will serve as a milestone in development of a complete wearable exoskeleton. With further refinement, medical robots may have the capacity to not only enhance recovery, but restore agency to the disabled.