Last modified: Monday, September 30, 2013

A little machine with a funny name may rank as one of a 72-year-old man’s best friends.

Researchers from the communication disorders and computer science departments at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently collaborated to help this man, a stroke victim, recover. The departments performed an experiment that brought gains in the man’s physical and speech abilities through therapy delivered by a robot.

Coming as the result of a $109,251 research grant from the American Heart Association, the study is led by Yu-kyong Choe, a speech language pathologist and assistant professor of communication disorders, and involves the use of a small robot designed by robotics expert Roderic A. Grupen, of the university’s computer science department.

During the experiment, the unidentified stroke patient participated in therapy sessions led by the robot, known as uBot-5, in which he was guided through word retrieval games and arm movement exercises.

The patient, who suffers from speech problems due to aphasia and a physical disability on the right side of his body, completed a program consisting of five weeks of speech therapy followed by five weeks of physical therapy.

According to the study’s authors, the patient’s improvements in speech and physical function were much greater when he engaged in only one therapy than when the two therapies were paired in sessions immediately following each other.

“He improved a lot, and he just loved it,” Choe said of the experiment. “People would have some doubts about whether a patient could work with a robot, but this person really liked it. We did a quality of life scale, about how he perceives his life, and he made really significant gains in that too,” she said.

According to Choe, using robots to deliver therapy could allow stroke patients to have access to intensive treatment at home and on a more frequent basis than they would normally receive through clinical visits.

“We know that treatment intensity is really important. The more you practice, the better you get, but a lot of them have some difficulty with their arms and legs, they can’t drive, and sometimes their insurance will just run out, so they really don’t get enough therapy,” she said.

Choe said that because of those issues, she began working on a simple PowerPoint presentation that would allow stroke patients to practice functional words at home to improve their speech.

Over the course of that project, she came into contact with Grupen, who designed the robot, and Hee Tae Jung, a doctoral candidate working at Grupen’s Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics in the university’s Lederle Graduate Research Center.

According to Jung, the study originated from a talk that he gave to members of the communication disorders department as part of an effort by the lab to reach out to other departments. After he had finished speaking, said Jung, Choe, who was in attendance, approached him and expressed interest in the project’s possibilities.

“They developed a small, child-sized robot and they wanted to have some health care application, so we started working together and thought that we could use this robot for stroke patients,” Choe said.

According to Jung, a series of discussions and brainstorming sessions between the two researchers followed, eventually resulting in the idea to apply the lab’s robotics technology to stroke patient rehabilitation.

Humanoid in form, the robot used in the experiment moves about by balancing on two wheels and has two arms, each with four degrees of freedom of movement to give them the ability to cover an extensive range of motion. It can be fitted with a camera and a small LED screen, through which the client can interact with a therapist.

According to Jung, the robot can be controlled by a therapist from a remote-location, allowing patients to continue receiving therapy even if they live in an area where there are very few — or even a complete absence of — therapists that specialize in the treatment they require.

“In many other applications, the problem is that the robot replaces existing human labor,” said Jung. “But it’s not like that. We don’t have enough therapists, countrywide or worldwide. We’re actually extending the existing therapists to the areas that don’t have them,” he said.

“On the robotics side, this is novel too,” said Jung. “For stroke rehab, usually people use exoskeleton robots, so it’s a single arm, or single leg kind of stuff. The problem is, if you need another activity, then you need to build another robot. It becomes really complicated and really expensive, so you don’t really see much benefit that way,” he said.

Jung said he hopes to see humanoid robots like uBot-5 living in residence with elderly people and those with medical needs in the future, so that clients can have them available to assist with their medical care and tasks that they may find difficult to perform on their own.

Choe said that the project is an ongoing effort, and that the research team is seeking to recruit additional patients to participate in the study.




 

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