We've seen some pretty amazing uses of robotics to help the disabled, including an exoskeleton that can give paraplegics the ability to walk again. Now researchers at Rice University are looking to help stroke sufferers move their limbs again by using a wearable robot that they can move with their thoughts alone.
This new exoskeleton — funded by a $1.17 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and the National Robotics Initiative — is worn by patients and controlled using an non-invasive electroencephalography (EEG) rig placed on their heads. When they think "move my left arm forward and to the right," for example, a computer connected to the EEG intercepts those brainwaves and makes the exoskeleton perform the requested action.
The idea behind the invention comes from current physical rehabilitation practices for stroke sufferers. It's believed that the repetitious movement of limbs in conjunction with patients thinking about making the moments themselves can help their motor pathways correct themselves in some cases. Using this exoskeleton would mean patients could more directly connect the thought with the action, rather than having someone else moving their limbs for them.
In order for the exoskeleton to work, the computer system it uses must first be trained by healthy wearers so that it can learn their brainwaves and associate them with the correct limb movements. Once that's done, it has to be tested on patients who still have some ability to control their own limbs. It's hoped that, after a time, it will work for patients who currently can't move their limbs at all. Rice University's researchers intend to begin this process soon with the involvement of 40 patients. The team has already been able to successfully record walking and hand motions using brainwaves alone.
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