Belgium, Netherlands develop rehabilitation technology for patients with arm dysfunction

The Rehabilitation Robotics II project brought together scientists, therapists, and gaming and IT engineers from universities, colleges and healthcare institutions in Belgium and the Netherlands to share knowledge and create a virtual training environment and a customised robot to help rehabilitate patients with impaired arm function.

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A patient using the I Travle rehabilitation system. © Universiteit Hasselt – REVAL Rehabilitation Research Centre A patient using the I Travle rehabilitation system. © Universiteit Hasselt – REVAL Rehabilitation Research Centre

" The patient with a neurological condition such as stroke or multiple sclerosis performs specific assignments with a robot in an operating system and virtual learning environment. Almost everyone knows a Wii game console. However, our system is more complex, since the robot is able to generate arm forces. If the patient has to pick up an object in the virtual environment, the robot arm will really feel the weight of the object. In addition, the rehabilitant trains specific movements in a haptic environment, meaning that precise movements are required. The difficulty level can be adjusted individually with the progress of rehabilitation. "

Peter Feys, Dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Hasselt

Rehabilitation Robotics II developed a virtual environment with visual and touch-related features which stimulates motor functions by having users perform tasks involving interaction with the environment or with objects in it. The robot generates forces so that if a user has to pick up a virtual object, they feel a force equivalent to the weight of its real-world equivalent on their arm. The environment has different levels of difficulty and feedback settings, and is intended to motivate both patients and therapists. 

After only a few weeks of use, several patients reported noticeable improvements in their ability to perform daily activities. Examples included eating a meal independently, switching lights on, cleaning windows, sending e-mails, embracing loved ones and scratching one’s nose while controlling an electric wheelchair.

Better recovery prospects

The technology is intended for people who have suffered strokes or who are affected by neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis. They often face a lengthy rehabilitation process, with the prognosis for a full recovery of arm function after a stroke still relatively bleak, especially in the most severe cases. 

Moreover, prior to the launch of Rehabilitation Robotics II, the effects of exercise on upper limb movements had, in multiple sclerosis patients, only been examined in a small number of pilot studies. Previously the focus of such patients’ rehabilitation was mainly on the lower limbs. However, the functioning of the arms and hands is crucial for carrying out many daily tasks and a determining factor in patients’ level of personal autonomy and quality of life. Its targeting of rehabilitation in this area is one of the project’s main innovative features.

Collaboration within the multidisciplinary team made it possible to define the game concept and motion functions to be covered. Pilot tests were carried out to assess the usability and effectiveness of the system for people with neurological disorders.

A follow-up project

Rehabilitation Robotics II led to the implementation of a follow-up project called I-Travle, which further developed the technology to allow patients to use it independently at home with smaller robots and other devices.

Exercises are automatically adjusted to the user’s capabilities and needs, so there is no requirement for a therapist to be present. The intensity can be increased, resulting in shorter rehabilitation times. Personalised rehabilitation of this kind is essential to giving patients the best chance of making a full recovery.

Total investment and EU funding

Total investment for the project “Rehabilitation robotics II/I Travle” is EUR 2 775 793, with the EU’s European Regional Development Fund contributing EUR 1 387 896 through the “Belgium-Netherlands” Operational Programme for the 2007-2013 programming period.

 

Draft date

07/08/2019