New Robotic Glove May Help MD Patients Retain Hand Movement

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by Charles Moore |

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A new smart rehabilitation device called EsoGlove developed by a research team from the National University of Singapore (NUS) is designed to assist patients who have lost hand function due to injuries or nerve-related disorders such as muscular dystrophy and stroke.

NUS scientists say the EsoGlove is an improvement on conventional robotic hand rehabilitation devices because it has sensors to detect muscle signals, and, being made of lightweight, soft materials, can conform to natural hand movements, reducing discomfort and risk of injury. The robotic glove is also compact and portable, so patients recovering at home or who are bedridden can perform rehabilitation exercises with less effort and in greater comfort.
Assistant Professor Raye Chen-Hua Yeow of the NUS Department of Biomedical Engineering, a specialist in soft wearable robotics, who currently holds over 25 international journal publications and over 60 conference abstracts/publications in the area of human biomechanics, medical devices and robotics, and a key member of the EsoGlove research team, explains: “For patients to restore their hand functions, they need to go through rehabilitation programmes that involve repetitive tasks such as gripping and releasing objects. These exercises are often labor intensive and are confined to clinical settings. EsoGlove is designed to enable patients to carry out rehabilitation exercises in various settings — in the hospital wards, rehabilitation centres and even at home. Equipped with technology that can detect and interpret muscle signals, EsoGlove can also assist patients in daily activities, for instance by guiding the fingers to perform tasks such as holding a cup.”

Dr, Yeow, who is also an affiliated principal investigator with the Advanced Robotics Center and the Singapore Institute for Neurotechnology (SINAPSE), has secured over $2 million in research funding. His team at NUS develops medical technology that targets unmet clinical needs, particularly in the category of smart assistive devices, rehabilitation and surgical robotics, and includes Dr. Yeow’s clinical collaborator Dr. Lim Jeong Hoon from the NUS Department of Medicine, as well as PhD KeongBAWcandidate Yap Hong Kai and undergraduate student Benjamin Ang Wee Keong, both from the NUS Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Greater Comfort And Convenience

The NUS researchers note that conventional robotic devices for hand rehabilitation have rigid electromechanical components, which make their use heavy and uncomfortable for patients.

“EsoGlove is unique as it is made entirely of soft components and does not require complicated mechanical setups. The main body of the glove is made of fabric, with soft actuators embedded. It also has adjustable Velcro straps to cater to different hand sizes,” Dr. Yeow points out in a NUS release.

EsoGlove is connected to a pump-valve control system that modulates the air pressure that directs the soft actuators. When the actuators are pressurized, they apply distributed forces along the length of the finger to promote finger movements, such as bending, extending and twisting, that support various hand motions. They note that this method does not constrain the finger’s natural movements, unlike conventional devices that have rigid links and joints. Each actuator also functions independently, providing assistance to each finger separately.

A table-top version of EsoGlove is available for bedridden patients, as is a waist-belt version for mobile patients who are recovering at home.

Smart Control And Assistance

The NUS scientists say EsoGlove’s intuitive control mechanism involves a coupling of electromyography and radio-frequency identification technologies. This feature enables the robotic glove to detect a patient’s intent to perform a particular action, such as picking up a pen or holding a mug. By interpreting the wearer’s muscle signals, the EsoGlove can help the patient move the fingers as necessary to execute specific tasks involving objects of various shapes and sizes in an intuitive manner.

LimJHDr. Lim, who is also a senior consultant at the National University Hospital’s Division of Neurology, observes that, “With this unique approach, we can develop therapeutic tools using safe and wearable robotic technology. Patients can take the initiative in their own rehabilitative process, rather than being passive recipients of therapists’ intervention.”

KaiYH“As the soft actuators in the EsoGlove are made from non-ferromagnetic materials, they are suitable for use in functional magnetic resonance imaging studies. We hope that the robotic glove can contribute towards investigating the brain’s activity in relation to motor performance during hand rehabilitation, and unravel the functional effects of soft rehabilitation robotics on brain stimulation,” adds Dr. Yap, who is also from the NUS Graduate School for Integrative Sciences and Engineering.

Clinical Studies and Commercialization

Dr. Yeow and his team plan to commence pilot clinical studies at the National University Hospital in February 2016 to validate the device’s performance, as well as to obtain patient and clinical feedback on how they might further refine the EsoGlove’s design. The studies are expected to take about six months, and involve 30 patients.

The Yeow research team has also filed a patent for EsoGlove, and plans to launch a spin-off company to commercialize the device.

National University of Singapore