NIH awards $3 million grant to study movement disorders
UD researchers working on the treatment of movement disorders are, from left, John Scholz, Jill Higginson, Sunil Agrawal and Stuart Binder-Macleod.
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3:35 p.m., Nov. 19, 2008----A multidisciplinary research team from the University of Delaware departments of Mechanical Engineering and Physical Therapy has been awarded a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue a study on the treatment of movement disorders. The grant was awarded under NIH's Bioengineering Research Partnerships (BRP) program.

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Led by Sunil Agrawal, professor of mechanical engineering, the team includes John Scholz, professor of physical therapy; Stuart Binder-Macleod, Edward L. Ratledge Professor of Physical Therapy; and Jill Higginson, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

The project will focus on developing and testing novel rehabilitation solutions, including un-motorized and motorized exoskeletons for gait training of stroke and other motor-impaired patients.

Agrawal emphasizes the extent of the problem: “Some 700,000 people suffer strokes every year,” he says, “and there are already two to three million survivors suffering the after-effects of stroke.”

“It has a big impact on a person's life,” adds Scholz. “Stroke not only affects many aspects of daily living but also can trigger further problems -- for example, bad balance can lead to a fall and a broken hip. Improved emergency care has led to more stroke victims being saved, but many are severely impaired.”

The initial BRP grant, awarded in 2002 and led by Thomas Buchanan, professor of mechanical engineering and deputy dean of the College of Engineering, enabled the researchers to develop robotic prototypes and demonstrate the feasibility of the treatment approach through limited testing with human subjects. Significant progress was also made in the development of biomechanical models to predict muscle deficiencies during normal and abnormal gait.

“The competitively renewed grant will focus on new developments in robotic exoskeletons, embedded with a variety of position and force sensors to enable further testing,” Agrawal says, “as well as modification of the two robotic exoskeletal devices developed during the initial research.”

The first is a simple un-motorized device, known as a gravity-balancing orthosis (GBO), which increases range of motion in impaired individuals by removing gravity from the joints. The second, an active leg exoskeleton (ALEX), is equipped with servo motors and a controller to apply forces on the leg to not only improve its motion but also maximize learning, or retraining of the brain.

The researchers will test these devices with additional features and functionality, including functional electrical stimulation (FES) and motorized control of the ankle. They will also compare the GBO and ALEX with a traditional gait training approach known as body-weight-supported treadmill training. The subject pool for the new study will consist of 30 stroke patients.

A third aspect of the new project is to use gait analysis, biomechanics, FES models, and sensors on the exoskeleton to develop a screening tool for use in determining whether a subject's gait can be improved.

“There is growing awareness that new technologies can make a major contribution to quality of life,” Scholz says. “Stroke centers are very interested in these devices and would provide an excellent setting for further testing on larger numbers of people.”

Article by Diane Kukich
Photo by Kathy Atkinson