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Robotic Therapy Helps Restore Hand Use After Stroke

A robotic therapy device may help people regain strength and normal use of affected hands long after a stroke,// according to a University of California, Irvine study.

Stroke patients with impaired hand use reported improved ability to grasp and release objects after therapy sessions using the Hand-Wrist Assisting Robotic Device (HOWARD). Each patient had at least moderate residual weakness and reduced function of the right hand, although the affected hands were neither totally paralyzed nor unable to feel. Seven women and six men who had suffered a stroke at least three months prior participated in the pilot study using this robotic device.

“Most spontaneous improvement in function occurs in the first three months after a stroke, and after that things tend to plateau,” said Dr. Steven C. Cramer, senior author of the study and associate professor in neurology, anatomy and neurobiology at UCI. “Robot-assisted therapy may help rewire the brain and make weak limbs move better long afterwards.”

Previously, robotic devices have improved post-stroke shoulder and leg function. Cramer said this study is one of the first attempts to specifically aid hand function. Cramer presented HOWARD study findings yesterday at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2007 in San Francisco.

Developed by UCI researchers, HOWARD aids patients as they grasp and release common objects. The robotic device wraps around the hand and couples with a computer program that directs patients though a physical therapy program. HOWARD users initiate hand motion, with the robot monitoring and assisting the activity in order to meet therapeutic goals.

“The HOWARD therapy isn’t passive; the patient has to jumpstart the program and initiate the motor command,” Cramer said. “But if the hand is weak and can only budge one-tenth of an inch, the robot helps to complete the task so the brain relearns what it’s like to make the
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