Robotic Braces Could Help Rewire Stroke Victims' Brains - InformationWeek

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4/6/2007
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Robotic Braces Could Help Rewire Stroke Victims' Brains

Researchers reported an average of 23% improvement in arm function after testing the therapeutic device on patients.

Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have announced success with a robotic brace that helps people with paralysis rewire their brains to regain movement.

Researchers reported an average of 23% improvement in arm function after testing the therapeutic device on patients at MIT's Clinical Research Center and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. They reported their findings, from a pilot clinical trial with six patients, in this month's issue of the American Journal of Medicine & Rehabilitation. They believe the device may help people who have suffered long-term paralysis, and they're seeking Food and Drug Administration approval.

"We saw this as a novel technology with the potential to have a significant impact on the quality of life for people," Charles Cooney, faculty director of MIT's Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation and chemical engineering professor, told the university's news office. "This study proves we were right."

Researchers said the device senses electrical muscle activity and powers movement, helping "close the feedback loop of brain intention and actual limb movement that is believed to be a key component of cerebral plasticity in motor recovery." They said patients' muscle tension decreases, and one patient fully bent and straightened her arm after 16 sessions.

"It was incredible to be able to move my arm again on command," Maggie Fermental, a 32-year-old stroke survivor, said in a statement released by MIT. "Cooking, dressing, shopping, turning on light switches, opening cabinets; it's easier now that I have two arms again."

Fermental was paralyzed on one side and received routine therapy for 18 months, then used the brace 18 times in nine weeks, according to MIT. The portable, light-weight, slip-on device uses electromyography to detect electrical activity in contracting muscles' cells. It sends the data to a motor that responds by initiating, controlling, and completing the movement. The process helps neurons rewire themselves for movement.

"Without the device, many of the individuals we tested were simply unable to complete the movement, and thus had no practical way to improve their performance through practice," said Dr. Joel Stein, researcher and chief medical officer and medical director of the Stroke Program at Spaulding and assistance professor of physical medicine at Harvard Medical School.

"By allowing the user to complete an intended movement through its 'power assist' function, the device helps the user improve his or her performance through practice," he said in a prepared statement. "Thus the device acts as a facilitator of the innate capability of the human brain to improve function through practice."

Researchers began developing the brace with Deshpande Center grants in 2002 and 2003. The center helps MIT innovators obtain resources to increase the commercial viability of their inventions. Two MIT students won $50,000 through a business plan competition and founded Myomo, the Boston company developing the device.

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