Friday, November 24, 2006

Robots Aid Stroke Victims, Autistic Kids

By SETH BORENSTEIN Friday, November 24, 2006

Physical therapist Susan Conroy adjusts the screen on the MANUS rehabilitation robot as research participant June Green uses the machine Thursday, Nov. 9, 2006, in Baltimore, Md. Looking on is MIT's Principle Research Scientist Hermano Igo Krebs, right. In experiments across the country, robots are providing the human caring touch to patients who need more help than there are therapists and nurses

BALTIMORE - After more than 2 1/2 years of physical therapy and electronic stimulation, stroke victim Mike Marin still couldn't open a door with his left hand. Now, thanks to a robot, Marin can open a door and his atrophied left arm isn't completely useless anymore.

Marin is at the forefront of what may seem an unlikely use for robots: providing the caring human touch. For three months in rehab at a suburb north of New York, an unnamed and unlikely looking robot guided his arm repeatedly through an ordinary video game. Where normal therapy failed, the constant robot-guided repetitions worked.

"I still got a long way to go," said the New York City computer network specialist who had a stroke two days before his 40th birthday. "The robot really put a lot of muscle tone back in my arm."

Marin, who worked with a robot at the Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, N.Y., is one of about 300 stroke patients in experimental studies with a robot that's a cross between an exercise machine and video game. And many of these patients, who wouldn't normally get better, showed significant improvement, said Dr. Christopher Bever, chief of neurology at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Baltimore, where one of the studies was conducted.

The patients' scores on the video game _ based on their ability to guide the joystick and grasp and release it properly without the robot's help _ have improved about 10 percent, said MIT roboticist Hermano Igo Krebs.

"We're able to show consistently better outcome with therapy using robots rather than conventional standard care," said his MIT colleague, Neville Hogan.

In experiments across the country, robots are providing the human caring touch to patients who need more help than there are therapists and nurses: stroke victims, autistic children, and the elderly. Bever, a newcomer to the field of robotics, now wants to try robotic therapy on patients with multiple sclerosis.

At the University of Southern California, Maja Mataric, who runs the robotics center, is also using robots therapy on stroke patients. Unlike Hogan's robots, Mataric's are more like a coach, using humor and personality, to guide patients through monotonous therapy.

"What I'm really interested in is creating care for huge number of people _ millions of people _ who need one-on-one care," Mataric said.

She's also about to test robots as therapy aids for autistic children. A Yale study of robots and autistic children showed that while able children lose interest in the robots over time, the autistic children "have a fascination with repetitive mechanical things," Mataric said.

In Pittsburgh, "Nursebot" (a robot which took on male and female personalities of Earl and Pearl depending on the gender of the voice used at the time) was tried out with elderly patients. Despite the stereotype of older people being technology phobic, the patients accepted the robots. Their major concern was that the robots couldn't do enough to help them, said University of Pittsburgh nursing professor Judith Matthews.

Sebastian Thrun, who helped develop Nursebot and now is director of Stanford University's artificial intelligence lab, said robots are making inroads into the health care community for the repetitive tasks of taking people to the restroom and reminding them to take medicines.

That's because health care needs, he said, are "much more basic and much more doable from a technological perspective."

Marin, who had to talk his way into the robot therapy trial is hoping to get a repeat shot, but at Burke there's a long waiting list.

In Baltimore, June Green, an able-bodied patient who tested the arm robot as part of a control group, is strapped in again in a chair for another robotic spin. If she fails to guide the joystick correctly, the robot takes over, moving her entire arm.

"You can feel it guide you," Green said. "It feels kind of funny because you're not in control."

On the Net:

The MIT lab for biomechanics and human rehabilitation:

The Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems at the University of Southern California:

The nursebot program:

A service of the Associated Press(AP)