Robot-assisted movement training can help individuals with stroke reduce arm and hand impairment, but robot therapy is typically only about as effective as conventional therapy. Refining the way that robots assist during training may make them more effective than conventional therapy. Here we measured the therapeutic effect of a robot that required individuals with a stroke to achieve virtual tasks in three dimensions against gravity.
The robot continuously estimated how much assistance patients needed to perform the tasks and provided slightly less assistance than needed in order to reduce patient slacking. Individuals with a chronic stroke (n = 26, baseline upper extremity Fugl-Meyer score = 23 ± 8) were randomized into two groups and underwent 24 one hour training sessions over 2 months. One group received the assist-as-needed robot training and the other received conventional table top therapy with the supervision of a physical therapist.
Training helped both groups significantly reduce their motor impairment, as measured by the primary outcome measure, the Fugl-Meyer score, but the improvement was small (3.0 ± 4.9 points for robot therapy, versus 0.9 ± 1.7 for conventional therapy). There was a trend for greater reduction for the robot trained group (p = 0.07). The robot group largely sustained this gain at the three-month follow-up. The robot-trained group also experienced significant improvements in Box and Blocks score and hand grip strength, while the control group did not, but these improvements were not sustained at follow-up. In addition, the robot-trained group showed a trend toward greater improvement in sensory function, as measured by the Nottingham Sensory Test (p = 0.06).
These results suggest that, in patients with chronic stroke and moderate-severe deficits, assisting in three dimensional virtual tasks with an assist-as-needed controller may make robotic training more effective than conventional table top training.