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Researchers Aim to Make Rehabilitation Robotics Available for General Public

At the fifth annual Rehabilitation Robotics Conference, Denise Oswalt demonstrates a virtual reality application from the lab of Bradley Greger, an ASU researcher who specializes in neural engineering. Photo by Terry Grant/ASU

Making a trip to Disneyland with the little ones is physically out of reach for many seniors and stroke victims. However, Thomas Sugar, an ASU mechanical engineer who specializes in wearable technology, projects that in the next five years, seniors and other people with mobility issues will be able to rent robotic exoskeletons that make their dream vacations — and mundane tasks — a possibility.

We’re on the cusp of making these technologies available and affordable for the general public.

Thomas Sugar, ASU

His ASU spin-out company, SpringActive Inc., aims to produce a robotic prosthetic ankle for the general population within the next year.

This week, Sugar and over 300 other rehabilitation robotics researchers, industry leaders, and clinicians gathered at ASU for the fifth annual Rehabilitation Robotics Conference.

There has been an increased interest in the rehabilitation robotics - mainly driven by an aging population dealing with debilitating health problems - based on the promise of restoring physical movement and control. Most of the rehabilitation robotic therapies were created to help military veterans, however, the next generation will aim to serve the general public.

This field covers a variety of assistive devices and therapies, including treadmill-like robots that assist stroke survivors use their arms and legs, prosthetics that enable users to sense space and dimension, and exoskeletons that support walking and lifting.

The conference provides our junior investigators with an unprecedented opportunity to hear about three decades of research from the people who created the field. We have collected research on neuroplasticity, locomotion dynamics and a myriad of other body-machine interfaces. The next phase will bring a new generation of rehabilitative technologies.

Marco Santello, Neurophysiologist, ASU

“Widespread clinical acceptance of rehabilitation robotics is the most significant change we’ll see in the next decade,” said Neville Hogan, a mechanical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who spoke at the conference.

“Tech-savvy therapists recognize the value of assistive robotics and see the standardized data collection they afford as a major benefit,” Hogan said.

“It’s far less subjective than the clipboard methods of the past, and enhances our ability to tailor therapy to individual patients,” he said.

Dario Farina, chair of neurorehabilitation engineering at the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College of London, also presented at the workshop.

Farina’s research has enabled the simultaneous processing of hundreds of motor neurons — the brain signals sent to muscles — without invasive procedures. This breakthrough has challenged standard views on the neural activity that drives stability in the performance of precise tasks and is projected to result in prosthetic devices that offers unprecedented levels of fine motor control to patients.

“In the near future, it will be possible to fully decode the neural information sent from the spinal cord and build man-machine interfaces for the natural and dexterous control of bionic limbs,” Farina said, describing that patients will be able to control prosthetic devices with the same, automated mental commands used to control their natural hands.

Since health problems affect patients in a different way, fine-tuning rehabilitation therapies is the next step for Panagiotis Artemiadis, an ASU mechanical engineer whose study includes mechatronics and human-robot interaction.

“In the next five years,” he said, “we’ll be able to adjust robotics to be patient specific.”

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