Helping (robotic) hand for stroke patients

18 January 2016 | Research
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Hong Kai demonstrating the desktop version of the robotic glove

Stroke patients and people who have lost their hand functions due to injuries or nerve-related conditions can now get a helping hand, literally, with a glove invented by NUS researchers. An average of 5,868 people in Singapore are stricken by stroke yearly from 2005 to 2013, resulting in partial paralysis that may include the hand.

Named EsoGlove, the innovative device is made of stretchable spandex material which incorporates sensors that detect muscle signals. The washable glove houses soft silicon rubber actuators operating the “fingers”. The flexible mechanism allows natural movements, while providing for comfort. In contrast, traditional robotic “hands” have uncomfortable rigid linkages and joints, with only a single plane of motion.

The new intuitive system employs a wireless controller band worn by the user on the forearm to detect muscle signals from the arm and guide the injured hand in performing movements. The glove embeds a radio-frequency identification (RFID) reader to scan tags controlling a particular action, such as holding or pinching an object. By tapping the reader on a particular tag, the robotic fingers assist the wearer’s hand to perform the task.

NUS Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Raye Yeow, PhD candidate Yap Hong Kai and Year 4 undergraduate Benjamin Ang Wee Keong, in collaboration with Dr Lim Jeong Hoon from NUS Medicine, developed the creative gadget. At about 200g, the novel glove is half the weight of conventional robotic rehabilitation devices. Used together with the forearm band, it works in tandem with a pump-valve control system with RFID tags, contained in a table-top version for bedridden patients, or a wearable belt for those recovering at home.

glove 2

The team comprising (from left) Asst Prof Yeow, Hong Kai with the glove, Dr Lim and Benjamin

Asst Prof Yeow explained that the EsoGlove prevents stiffness and wasting of muscle by mobilising the joints, as well as indirectly stimulates a patient’s nervous system to promote hand activity. He pointed out that patients need to go through rehabilitation programmes involving repetitive tasks such as gripping and releasing object to restore their hand functions. These exercises are often labour-intensive and time-consuming. The glove design enables patients to conduct their exercises more conveniently in various settings such as hospital wards, rehabilitation centres and even home.

Added Dr Lim, who is also a Senior Consultant with the Division of Neurology at National University Hospital (NUH), “With this unique approach, we can develop therapeutic tools using safe and wearable robotic technology. Patients can take the initiative in their own rehabilitative process, rather than being passive recipients of therapists’ intervention.”

Hong Kai, who is attached to the NUS Graduate School for Integrative Sciences and Engineering, highlighted that the non-ferromagnetic materials of the EsoGlove actuators make it ideal in functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies which investigate the brain’s activity in relation to motor performance during hand rehabilitation.

A six-month clinical trial in February on 30 NUH stroke patients will examine the effectiveness of the glove in helping them recover hand function. The researchers will use MRI to study the patients’ brain during the therapy sessions.

The team has filed a patent for EsoGlove and aims to set up a spin-off company to commercialise the device. The new invention is expected to cost only a tenth of the $28,800 (US$20,000) or higher price tag of existing products in the market.

See press release and media coverage.