Robotics offers new hope to stroke survivors

A meeting 20 years ago between two University academics from opposite ends of campus sparked a research programme that is now offering new hope to stroke survivors.

Campaign to fund life-changing robots to treat stroke survivors. November 2018

Professor Martin Levesley, who is spearheading the robotics research programme.

Bipin Bhakta, from the Faculty of Medicine and Health, approached Martin Levesley, now Professor of Dynamics and Control in the School of Mechanical Engineering, with a challenge – to build a robot that could mimic the work of a physiotherapist.

It addressed a particular need for the stroke patients Dr Bhakta – later Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine – treated at his clinics in the Leeds Teaching Hospital NHS Trust, to help them regain the use of their arms and hands.

After years of research, testing and trial, Martin and his team have built MyPAM – a robotic joystick, which patients can use in their own home to complement the hands-on treatment they receive from their physio.

Sadly, Professor Bhakta did not live to see his dream reach fruition. He died in 2014, and now Martin is passionately determined to deliver on the vision of his friend and colleague.

He says: “When we started, we had no idea whether this would work. We’re now confident it does. There isn’t anything else out there which will recreate traditional physiotherapy.

“Typically, a stroke destroys vital connections that allow us to carry out basic motor tasks. Physiotherapy is aimed at rebuilding neural pathways, so patients ‘re-learn’ how to send signals from their brain to their hands and arms and regain the function they enjoyed before the stroke.”

Though crucial to the patients’ independence, physiotherapy on the upper limbs is not the prime focus of their treatment. Instead, the NHS – pressed for space and resources – concentrates on patients’ lower limb movement, so they can be up and moving. “The focus is really on getting people out of hospital to receive their care in the community,” says Martin.

Once home, the rehabilitation continues, though for their upper limb movement, stroke patients receive only short one-to-one physiotherapy sessions. While they may be prescribed an exercise regime to follow at home, patients often find this dull and repetitive.

Professor Bhakta saw robotics as the way to overcome these challenges – a device that patients could use in their own home would give them physiotherapy as frequently and for as long as they wish without the need to visit hospital. And by linking the device to a computer screen, the exercises could be made more stimulating and interesting.

The exercise takes the form of a computer game. The Leeds team has created a virtual world in which users tend an on-screen garden, where the robot arm allows you to rake the lawn, sow the seeds and water the plants – each of them a valuable use of their limbs. Another game is set within a wacky world of banana-grabbing monkeys.

Initially, the robot moves the patient’s arm by itself, but in time, as the patient gains their own strength and movement, they begin to control the robot themselves. The robot is programmed to react to how the patient is responding to the treatment to gradually offer them more and more independence of movement. The results are then sent remotely for a therapist to examine.

Trials of the device have yielded promising results after 17 patients were given the robot to use in their own homes during a period of six to eight weeks. “We have clinically significant data to show that people’s upper limb movement has improved,” says Martin. 

Crucially, those improvements continued even after they stopped using the machines, as though the robot had catalysed further recovery in the weeks after it had been taken away. It even worked for patients who had suffered their stroke some years earlier.

This success has fired the ambition of the team to make the therapy more widely available, and their plan now is to build a fleet of at least ten devices to progress to a full clinical trial. At present, they cost about £5,000 each – which includes the robot arm, a computer and the official certification needed to show it is safe to be used as a medical device.

Martin says: “I have 10 or 15 years left in my own career. I just want to see this happen.”

The University’s Footsteps Fund is supporting Professor Levesley’s work to develop this technology. See the Footsteps Fund website for details of how you can support the campaign.

Posted in: