Medical robotic devices show great promise for society
Nov. 21, 2011
by Mark Ollig

“It may be difficult to predict the future, but the era of an aging society is definitely coming.”

These words were spoken by Professor Eiichi Saito.

Saito is a professor of rehabilitation medicine at Japan’s Fujita Health University.

With nearly one in four Japanese aged 65 and older, new computerized robotic devices are being tested in hopes of providing greater assistance and independence to this segment of the population.

During a recent demonstration, Saito, who normally uses a walker, instead strapped a computerized, metallic brace device called an “Independent Walk Assist” onto his right leg.

Saito’s right leg is paralyzed because of polio.

With a smile, Saito proceeded to effortlessly rise up from his chair, and walk across the stage floor. He then easily walked up and down a flight of three stairs.

He noted his improved ability to walk and bend his knee more naturally using the computerized metallic brace device, rather than the walker. He also said how much easier it was for him to rise up from the chair.

The power and sensors for the movements made by the computerized metallic brace came from a small backpack Saito wore.

Another robotic computerized device was demonstrated by a health care worker. This device showed how it could lift and move a disabled patient from his bed, to another location.

These demonstrations were being presented in front of reporters at a Toyota showroom facility in Tokyo.

Officials from Toyota said the sensors, motors, and computer software technology used in their automobiles, are now being utilized in new computerized devices to help people become more mobile.

What they learn from these new devices will be most likely used in future cars as well, Toyota said.

According to Akifumi Tamaoki, general manager of Toyota, additional tests and user feedback are needed from more people to insure the safety and reliability of the new devices.

Robotic healthcare devices by Toyota will become available in the marketplace during 2013.

A video showing the two demonstrations can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/6v937hn.

The “Stride Management Assist Device” by Honda, can assist people who have lost strength in their legs due to aging, or other physical conditions.

This device is not intended for those who have lost total mobility in their legs; it is used for those who need an “assist” in their walking.

The assist device lifts each leg at the thigh, using a small motor to help the user as their leg moves forward and backward.

The unit weighs about 6 pounds, and includes a belt worn around the hips and thighs.

The device uses hip and ankle sensors, which send data to a computing processor externally attached to a portable device, positioned on the small of one’s back.

The Stride Management Assist Device can help not just the elderly, but also those who have trouble walking from other physical ailments, such as strokes.

“It’s supporting and stabilizing,” commented CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton, while demonstrating the device during the CBS “The Early Show” television program.

This device also helps lengthen the walking stride of the user.

“This actually engages more muscles than if you take shorter strides, so it’s actually preventing subsequent muscle atrophy,” Dr. Ashton said.

A team of scientists from Sweden and Italy have developed what is thought to be the first artificial robotic hand that conveys feeling back to the human user.

Called “SmartHand” this prototype is a five-fingered, self-contained robotic hand, with four motors and 40 individual sensors.

A team of scientists in Sweden attached this robotic hand to a 22-year-old amputee, Robin Ekenstam, who had lost his right hand to cancer.

They connected nerve pressure sensor endings onto selected areas of skin on Ekenstam’s right arm. These sensors will stimulate specific receptor areas of his brain’s cortex.

The sensor endings were also attached to the tiny sensor receptors in the robotic hand fastened to the end of Ekenstam’s arm.

I watched video of Ekenstam controlling the fingers of the robotic hand while grasping and picking up a filled, plastic water bottle. He then proceeded to pour water from the bottle into a cup sitting on a table.

Ekenstam’s brain was picking up information from the sensors inside the artificial hand, and the artificial hand was receiving signals from his brain.

“It’s great!” Ekenstam exclaimed, “I have a feeling that I have not had for a long time. When I grab something tightly, I can feel it in the fingertips, which is strange, because I don’t have them [human fingers] anymore. It’s fantastic.”

Robin Ekenstam could once again touch and feel by using his new robotic right hand.

Scientists say it has taken 10 years to get to this stage.

“First, the brain will control them [artificial hands] without any muscle contractions; secondly, these hands will be able to give back feedback, so that the patient will be able to feel what’s going on . . . by touching, just like a real hand,” said Christian Cipriani, who authored the May 2011 research paper, “The SmartHand Transradial Prosthesis.”

To watch a remarkable video about this new bio-engineered robotic SmartHand, go to http://tinyurl.com/7a5hfaw.

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