UH launches futuristic robotic device to help stroke patients

Nearly 800,000 people in the United States suffer a stroke each year — and the condition affects each patient differently. A University of Houston researcher has created a device that significantly improves the lives of patients whose motor skills are affected by a stroke.

UH professor of technology Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal developed a next-generation robotic arm that can be controlled by the user’s brainwaves. The wearable device uses a brain-computer interface (BCI) developed by Contreras-Vidal. Stroke patient Oswald Reedus, 66, is the first person to use such a device.

Reedus lost use of his left arm after a stroke that also caused aphasia, or difficulty speaking. While he has recovered his ability to speak clearly, the new exoskeleton will help rehabilitate his arm.

When strapped into the non-invasive device, the user’s brain activity is translated into motor commands to power the upper limb robotics. As patients like Reedus use the device, more data is collected to improve the experience.

“If I can pass something along to help the life of a stroke person, I will. For me, it’s my purpose in life now,” Reedus said in a UH press release. His mother and younger brother both died of stroke, and Reedus is determined to help the device that can help other stroke patients recover.

Contreras-Vidal, a distinguished professor of Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen, has led his device from idea to home use, such as at Reedus, as well as clinical trials at TIRR Memorial Hermann. The project is funded in part by an $813,999 grant from the National Science Foundation’s newly created Division of Translational Impacts.

“Our project addresses an urgent need for accessible, safe and effective stroke rehabilitation equipment for use in the clinic and at home for long-term sustainable therapy, a global market size currently projected to reach $31 billion,” said Contreras-Vidal in the release. “Unfortunately, current devices fail to engage patients, are difficult to adapt to their needs and capabilities, are expensive to operate and maintain, or are limited to clinical settings.”

dr. Gerard E. Francisco, medical director and director of the Neuro Recovery Research Center at TIRR Memorial Hermann, is leading the clinical trials for the device. He is also chairman and professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at UTHealth Houston’s McGovern Medical School. He explains that TIRR’s partnership with engineering schools such as the Cullen College of Engineering at UH and others across the country is strategic.

“This is really exciting because what we know now is that there are so many ways we can induce neuroplasticity or how we can boost recovery,” Francisco says in the release. “Out of that collaboration will come many of these groundbreaking technologies and innovations that we can bring to our patients.”

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