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Stroke is a major cause of long-term disability and the third-leading cause of death in the United States. It occurs in more than 700,000 Americans a year and causes more trivial long-term disabilities than any other disease. However, according to a study by neurology, anatomy and neurobiology associate professor Steven C. Cramer, people who suffer from strokes may be able to regain strength in affected hands using a robotic therapy device.
The device, named the Hand-Wrist Assisting Robotic Device and nicknamed HOWARD, reportedly increased use of impaired hands in stroke patients, allowing them to gain a better grasp and release of objects after therapy sessions. The seven women and six men who participated in this study possessed weakness and lessened use in their right hands, but exhibited no form of paralysis or any complete loss of feeling. The patients suffered from a stroke at least three months before participating in this pilot test.
‘Most spontaneous improvement in function occurs in the first three months after a stroke and after that things tend to plateau,’ Cramer said in a UCI press release dated Feb. 8. ‘Robot-assisted therapy may help rewire the brain and make weak limbs move better long afterwards.’
In the past, robot devices have been found to increase shoulder and leg function in post-stroke patients. This study is one of the first studies to test the robot devices on the hand functions in post-stroke patients, Cramer said. Cramer presented his research findings in San Francisco at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2007.
The HOWARD was developed by UCI researchers to aid post-stroke patients in grabbing and releasing ordinary objects. The robotic device lines the exterior of the hand by wrapping around it and works in conjunction with a physical therapy computer program that serves to direct the patients. The robotic contraption monitors and assists patients in reaching their physical therapy goals, and works to aid patients in establishing consistent motion after they initiate hand movement.
‘The HOWARD therapy isn’t passive; the patient has to jumpstart the program and initiate the motor command,’ Cramer said in the press release. ‘But if the hand is weak and can only budge one-tenth of an inch, the robot helps to complete the task so the brain relearns what it’s like to make the full movement.’
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke indicates that nearly three-quarters of all strokes happen in individuals over the age of 65 and chances of suffering from a stroke increase each decade after the age of 55. The patients in the study averaged 63 years of age and received 15 two-hour therapy sessions with the device, spread over a span of three weeks.
Results indicated that the device aided in establishing complete movement throughout all the sessions in seven of the patients, while six only obtained complete motion during the second half of the sessions.
Nonetheless, all the patients demonstrated an increase in grasping and releasing ability. The researchers issued patients an action research arm test

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