Strokes are more common than you probably imagine - one in six people will have one during their lifetime. Two thirds of those will suffer from paralysis of the arm as a result. That's why Swiss researchers are working on robots that can help stroke victims regain control over their arms and hands.
Roger Gassert, a professor of rehabilitation engineering at ETH Zurich, has built a bunch of robotic devices over the years for training hand functions. But to use them, the patient must schedule an appointment and come to the clinic, limiting the amount of time they can spend with them.
So now, he's building devices that can be used at home. Together with Jumpei Arata from Kyushu University he's developed an exoskeleton for the hand that weighs just 120 grams but is strong enough to allow its user to grip and lift a bottle of mineral water.
"Existing exoskeletons are heavy, and this is a problem for our patients because it renders them unable to lift their hands," Gassert said.
"That's why we wanted to develop a model that leaves the palm of the hand more or less free, allowing patients to perform daily activities that support not only motor functions but somatosensory functions as well."
The Power of Thought
The next step is give patients the ability to command their robotic exoskeleton with the power of thought.
"Especially with seriously affected patients, the connection between the brain and the hand is often severely or completely disrupted," Gassert said, "so we are looking for a solution that will help patients pass on commands to the robotic device intuitively."
Other potential applications include leg prostheses that can help patients walk, and other muscle support systems.
"My vision is that instead of performing exercises in an abstract situation at the clinic", Gassert added, "patients will be able to integrate them into their daily life at home, supported – depending on the severity of their impairments – by a robot."