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Robotic Arm Offers Hope For Some Stroke Patients

People who survive a stroke frequently suffer moderate to severe disability. Now technology has the potential to help some of these people regain some of the motor function they have lost.

Nancy Wheelen suffered a stroke and is now gradually learning to use her right hand again with the help of a robotic device she has strapped to her arm. "It is a beautiful merger of technology with empathy and compassion."

"It" is 'robotic upper extremity repetitive therapy,' a mechanical arm, known as 'Rupert" for short. Dr. Jiping He developed the robotic arm with a research team at Arizona State University along with a company called Kinetic Muscles Inc.

The robotic arm guides Ms. Wheelen in reaching for a cup on a computer screen.

Over time Dr. He says, stroke patients like Nancy Wheelen should be able to grasp a cup on their own. Dr. He explains "This repetitive therapy is more about teaching the brain than teaching the muscle."

Doctors have found the brain remarkably adaptable. One part can be trained to fill in for another, if need be. For instance, a specific part of your brain sends the command to extend your arm. But if that part has been damaged by a stroke, other parts of your brain might be "recruited" in effect to take over.

Then, says neurologist Dr. Laura Lennihan, it comes down to one thing. "That's practice, practice, practice. And it's true for people who are recovering from stroke."

In physical therapy patients practice doing simple things they used to be able to do.

With a robotic arm, patients could use the device at home and practice between sessions.

Dr. Lennihan says that could shorten the length of time they need expensive physical therapy. "A robot, a machine, is going to be expensive, but once it's built and it works, it could spend hours with someone practicing things."

The robotic arm is still experimental. But watch this: without the robot, this man has trouble lifting a bottle. With it, he is getting better at doing this task.

Someday, researchers say, their work could help millions of stroke patient's re-learn basic motions.