Rehabilitation With the Help of Robots

From automated assembly lines to personalized flying drones, robots are opening up new possibilities in the realms of both work and play.

Projects from the lab of Michelle Johnson, an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation in the Perelman School of Medicine, demonstrate that robots are playing an increasingly important role in healthcare, too, helping people regain motor skills lost to injury.

For patients who have cerebral palsy, or who have suffered a stroke or spinal cord injury, even the most everyday tasks can challenge the limits of their bodies.

Johnson, director of the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab, says her research goal is to gain “across these different injury types, an understanding of how people move.”

To that end, Johnson and her team of undergraduate and graduate researchers use and improve upon existing technology, focusing their attention on three areas: understanding how robot-assisted interventions can help patients, quantifying upper limb mobility during real-world tasks, and maintaining effective therapeutic techniques during remote, robot-assisted interventions.

At the Penn Rehab Robotics Lab open house on July 28, researchers from Johnson’s group demonstrated some of their work in progress. One machine, the ADLER Therapy Robot, helps patients who have injured one of their arms regain the motor functionality necessary for basic tasks.

The way it works is deceptively simple: A patient puts their hand in a cradle attached to a robotic arm and performs a task, such as lifting a cup to drink or combing their hair. The mechanics of those motions are recorded, so the robot can guide the patient through rehabilitation based on the nuances of natural motion.

The bi-ADLER project is structured the same way, but can help patients practice tasks that involve both sides of the body.

“There’s always something human about it and that’s what we’ve tried to incorporate into these algorithms,” says Anushree Singh, a master’s student in robotics in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), who works on the bi-ADLER project.

Other projects in Johnson’s lab include Baxter, a humanoid robot that can act as a physical therapist; a mobile service robot that utilizes telemedicine so doctors can monitor patients’ therapy progress remotely; and Theradrive, a robot for stroke rehabilitation.

The idea behind Theradrive, says Dalton Banks, a SEAS robotics master’s student, is to create a low-cost upper arm rehab platform. Patients move a lever to play a video game and adjust whether they need assistance moving the lever or more resistance. Patients have fun playing the game and do longer rehab sessions, which leads to increased mobility.

While many projects are not yet ready for direct patient care, Johnson says this work is progressing.

“We’re trying to move each along. They are all integrated. What we do in the clinic, we should take out there [in the field].”

Text by Heather A. Davis
Photos by Scott Spitzer