Robotic Exoskeleton May Improve Rehabilitation After Stroke, Brain Injury

The robotic device allows for bilateral rehab that mimics and adjusts to natural human motions.

A first-of-its kind robotic exoskeleton may provide the first glimpse into the future of rehabilitation for people suffering from spinal and neurological injuries.

The exoskeleton, dubbed HARMONY, is the result of years of research and development by the ReNeu Robotics Lab at the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. Ashish Deshpande, PhD, and colleagues designed the two-armed, robotic device to deliver full upper-body rehabilitative therapy using natural motion and customizable pressure and force. As a result, the device feels weightless to patients, and allows physicians and therapists to provide personalized, precise therapy and track and analyze data.

“[HARMONY] was specially designed to offer customized therapy for optimal efficacy,” said Deshpande, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “Not only does the exoskeleton adjust to patient size, it can also be programmed to be gentle or firm based on the individual’s therapy needs.”

Unlike currently available robotic devices for rehabilitation, HARMONY encompasses the entire upper body, allowing for bilateral training. The device, which was created with help from Meka Robotics, connects to patients at three points on each side of the upper body and features 14 axes, which allow for a wide, natural range of motion.

Active data collection, which happens 2,000 times per second, is fed back into the device’s programming so that it can consistently provide personalized feedback through changes in force and torque. If a patient’s motion ventures off course, for instance, the device can gently correct that motion. The device is able to mimic key natural motions, including the scapulohumeral rhythm, which could help patients reestablish natural range of motion after injury or stroke. Therapists can also program HARMONY to gradually increase exercise difficulty, and data collected during that process can be used to track a patients’ progress.

A trial of the device will begin in June on healthy subjects, followed by a study with stroke and spinal cord injury patients to evaluate the robot’s efficacy compared to that of conventional therapy.

In the future, the researchers hope to incorporate a gaming element to the device which could simulate daily activities and help patients relearn the basic motions necessary to complete them.