Health Watch - Howard: The Helping Hand For Stroke Survivors

April 25, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States, responsible for more serious, long-term disabilities than any other disease. Each year, more than 700,000 Americans suffer a stroke. But thanks to a robot named HWARD ("Howard"), the recovery process is getting easier.

Stroke victim Rob Reasons is lucky he can even hold a banjo pick.

"I couldn't move anything. It took about three weeks to get to the point that I could use a walker," Reasons says.

Recovering from a stroke would have taken even longer had Reasons not met Howard -- a robot that held his hand through weeks of rehab. Howard's computer games guide stroke patients through a therapy program. Reasons' hand controls a "virtual" hand on screen. Basting turkeys, making lemonade, and putting out fires -- all while trying to beat previous scores -- make it fun. It not only retrains weak hands and wrists but improves timing and coordination. If a patient isn't able to finish a job, the robot does it for him.

"So in a sense, it's re-teaching. The brain is re-learning how to make certain movements because, rather than rely on what the person can do and rehearse that, the robot gives them an extra few inches to complete a movement," says Steven C. Cramer, M.D., a neurologist at the University of California, Irvine.

Doctors watched brain activity increase on MRI scans as patients improved.

"What it helped me with was hand-eye coordination and timing. I got faster," Reasons says.

Two years after his stroke, Reasons' fine motor skills are back, but he's not resting until his banjo plays like it once did.

While robots have been used to rehab shoulders and legs, Howard -- which stands for hand-wrist assisting robotic device -- is one of the first to tackle the hand and wrist.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT:

Tom Vasich
University Communications
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, CA
tmvasich@uci.edu
(949) 824-6455


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