CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- At age 32, Maggie Fermental suffered a stroke that left her right side paralyzed. After a year and a half of conventional therapy with minimal results, she tried a new kind of robotic therapy developed by MIT engineers. A study to appear in the April 2007 issue of the American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation shows that the device, which helped Fermental, also had positive results for five other severe stroke patients in a pilot clinical trial.
Fermental, a former surgical nurse, used the rehabilitation device 18 times over nine weeks. After 16 sessions, Fermental, now a stroke education nurse at Beth Israel Hospital, was able to fully bend and straighten her elbow on her own for the first time since the stroke. "It was incredible to be able to move my arm again on command," she said. "Cooking, dressing, shopping, turning on light switches, opening cabinets-it's easier now that I have two arms again."
The device--which sensed Fermental's electrical muscle activity and provided power assistance to facilitate her movements-also altered her brain.
Following a stroke, the destruction of brain cells leads to loss of motor function. With painstakingly repetitive exercise therapy, other neurons can take over some of the lost function. Devices such as the MIT-developed robotic brace can help people exploit their neural plasticity--the increasingly recognized ability of the brain to rewire itself in response to experience and training.
The robotic therapy device, which is awaiting FDA approval, was tested on stroke patients at MIT's Clinical Research Center and at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. According to the researchers, the results show that "the ability of the device to provide a 'power assist' tomuscle groups may help close the feedback loop of brain intention and actual limb movement that is believed to be a key component of cerebral plasticity in motor recovery."