Rice University researchers have developed a stroke rehabilitation system based on off the shelf computer and gaming technology, and have begun studying its effectiveness on patients at the Memorial Hermann|TIRR hospital in Houston, Texas.
O’Malley [Marcia O’Malley, director of Rice’s Mechatronics and Haptic Interfaces Laboratory (MAHI)] and Memorial HHermann|TIRR doctors this fall began a two-year study of a prototype rehabilitation system developed at MAHI that uses a joystick to help patients with eye-to-hand coordination. The study involved 16 patients. In one exercise, the patients use the joystick to move an object from one part of the computer screen to another. Like all the systems in O’Malley’s lab, the rehab program uses force-feedback technology called “haptics” that allow people to “feel” their environment while they are in virtual reality.
The term “haptic” refers to the perception of touch, and in the prototype rehab system, the joystick is outfitted with motors that push the stick to resist moves in the wrong direction. As a result, the patient’s hands are guided along the right path. By repeating the exercise over and over, patients can gradually learn to control the objects on the screen in a smooth, precise way.
“We’re interested in measuring how smooth the movements are, compared to what might be optimal,” said O’Malley, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science. “The computer can precisely measure how a patient responds to every single exercise. This lets the doctors and physical therapists know exactly what their patient most needs to work on. This precise, measurable feedback provides a great advantage over the subjective evaluations currently in use.”
O’Malley said researchers have been using computer-controlled robots for physical rehabilitation since the early 1990s, but so far the technology has been too expensive to use on a large scale. She thinks this will change within the next few years.