UT Austin robot could help stroke patients regain strength

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Millions of Americans have trouble doing daily activities after suffering a stroke. It can leave a person with severe disabilities and a long road to recovery.

Researchers in the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin are using robotic technology to make that journey a little easier. Named HARMONY, researchers have designed a robotic exoskeleton, and it could revolutionize the field of rehabilitative robotics. With repeated motions, HARMONY helps patients regain strength and coordinate muscles.

“Our goal is to deliver more therapy, and possibly better therapy, than they’re getting now,” said Ashish Deshpande, assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering. “It attaches around a person’s body and is designed so it fits comfortably around the body and moves the body safely.”

It has taken four years for the design to become reality. And because HARMONY accommodates the upper body, it is the first of its kind. The robot is equipped with a suite of sensors that collect data at 2,000 times per second. The data is then fed back into the robot’s program for an instantly personalized robotic interaction.

Down the line, HARMONY could be critical in helping stroke patients like Joel Borden. His entire left side was affected after he suffered one several months ago.

“I knew I was having a stroke, yes,” remembers Borden. “I knew exactly what was going on.”

He has been undergoing physical therapy at the Central Texas Rehabilitation Hospital. Every inch of movement for Borden feels like a mile closer to his goal, which is getting back on the golf course.

“You don’t know until you start out this way what progress means,” said Borden.

“The exoskeleton device really in a sense mimics human function,” said Dr. Roger Parthasarathy, medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program at the Seton Brain and Spine Institute. “By mimicking human function as closely as possible, it’ll be able to help enable people of paralysis of their upper extremities to have more normal motion patterns, more normal range of motion and normal strength.”

An upcoming trial period will study HARMONY’s efficiency, compared with conventional rehabilitative therapy. Enrollment will begin in June for a small study of 20- to 30 healthy subjects that will be conducted at UT this summer, followed by a study with stroke and spinal cord injury patients.

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