Robotic glove custom made for stroke survivors


September 1, 2023 | View PDF

Alex Dolce/Florida Atlantic University

The soft robotic glove integrates five actuators into a single wearable device that conforms to the user's hand.

A first-of-its-kind robotic glove currently is lending a hand and providing hope to piano players who have suffered a disabling stroke. After suffering a stroke, everyday tasks can be extremely challenging due to decreased coordination and strength in one or both upper arms. These problems have spurred the development of robotic devices and now Florida investigators have come up with a new robotic hand that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to improve hand dexterity.

The developers claim this robotic glove is the first to "feel" the difference between correct and incorrect versions of the same song and to combine these features into a single hand exoskeleton.

"Playing the piano requires complex and highly skilled movements, and relearning tasks involves the restoration and retraining of specific movements or skills," said Erik Engeberg, who is a professor at Florida Atlantic University College of Engineering and Computer Science. "Our robotic glove is composed of soft, flexible materials and sensors that provide gentle support and assistance to individuals to relearn and regain their motor abilities."

Researchers integrated special sensor arrays into each fingertip of the robotic glove. This new technology provides precise force and guidance in recovering the fine finger movements required for piano playing. By monitoring and responding to users' movements, the robotic glove offers real-time feedback and adjustments, making it easier for them to grasp the correct movement techniques.

"In my opinion, we are indeed in a new era when it comes to helping people after a stroke. Advances in technology, such as the robotic glove, have opened up new possibilities for rehabilitation and recovery," said Engeberg.

Music and strokes

Stroke is the most important cause of disability for adults age 50 and older. After a stroke, patients commonly need rehabilitation to relearn to walk, talk or perform daily tasks. Research has shown that besides physical and occupational therapy, music therapy can help stroke patients to recover language and motor function. But for adults trained in music and who suffered a stroke, playing music may itself be a skill that needs to be relearned.

In a study published in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI, the Florida researchers have shown how novel soft robotics can help recovering patients relearn playing music and other skills that require dexterity and coordination. While wearing the glove, human users have control over the movement of each finger to a significant extent. Engeberg said the glove is designed to assist and enhance natural hand movements, allowing a stroke survivor to control the flexion and extension of their fingers.

Improved dexterity

The glove supplies hand guidance, providing support and amplifying dexterity. Each fingertip contains an array of 16 flexible sensors or 'taxels,' which give tactile sensations to the wearer's hand upon interaction with objects or surfaces.

"The robotic glove is certainly an important advance in stroke rehabilitation. Not only can the glove be used by stroke victims, but it could be used broadly by people with spinal cord injuries, brachial plexus injuries, basically anyone who has impaired motor control or sensation of the hand. Furthermore, this kind of glove could even be used as a tool to prevent certain kinds of injuries caused by repetitive movements," said Engeberg.

However, he cautioned that this technology is still in early stages. Currently, the robotic glove is a significant development but there are also other interesting technologies on the horizon that could further transform stroke rehab.

"For instance, virtual reality-based therapies are gaining attention and have shown promise in providing immersive and engaging rehabilitation experiences. Additionally, brain-computer interface technologies hold potential for enabling direct communication between the brain and external devices, opening up new avenues for rehabilitation," said Engeberg.

How can I get this glove?

As for availability, the timeline for the robotic glove's widespread use could vary. While the technology is progressing rapidly, it may still take some time before it becomes readily accessible to the general public.

"However, there might be ongoing clinical trials that individuals can participate in to gain access to the technology and contribute to its further development. Consulting with health care professionals or research institutions specializing in stroke rehabilitation would provide more specific information about the current status and availability of such trials," said Engeberg.

The researchers used machine learning to successfully teach the glove to 'feel' the difference between playing a correct versus incorrect version of a beginner's song on the piano. The glove operated autonomously without human input, with pre-programmed movements. The song was "Mary Had a Little Lamb," which requires four fingers to play.

"We found that the glove can learn to distinguish between correct and incorrect piano play. This means it could be a valuable tool for personalized rehabilitation of people who wish to relearn to play music," said Engeberg.

The authors foresee that patients might ultimately wear a pair of these gloves to help both hands independently regain dexterity, motor skills and a sense of coordination.

"The technology developed by professor Engeberg and the research team is truly a game-changer for individuals with neuromuscular disorders and reduced limb functionality," said Stella Batalama, who is the dean of the FAU College of Engineering and Computer Science. "Although other soft robotic actuators have been used to play the piano, our robotic glove is the only one that has demonstrated the capability to 'feel' the difference between correct and incorrect versions of the same song."


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