As a bioengineer, I look forward to the day when we can fashion new body parts, whether we build them or grow them out of tissue. Until we get to that point, we’ll have to rely on assistive devices to help people with injuries or illness function better. Yesterday I attended a talk on the use of robotic devices for use in rehabilitation following neurological injuries.
The talk was given by George Hornby, a research scientist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. He looked at improving the ability to walk in patients who have experienced stroke or spinal cord injury (SCI). In conventional therapy, patients are assisted by one or more physical therapists while they practice walking. It’s very labor intensive for the PT, thus limiting the length of a therapy session. Because the PT’s role is mechanical in nature and repetitive, it was thought that assistance could be automated.
Enter the robotic assistive devices. They attach to the patient’s lower body, and provide the support and assistance during walking. RIC compared these devices to conventional therapy. Studies were done for patients with incomplete SCI and stroke.
Unfortunately, when compared to conventional therapy, the robots did not do well. Patients didn’t work as hard, their walking speed didn’t increase as much. Their gait and balance did not improve as much. In the stroke patients, gait symmetry actually got worse! Stroke patients with hemiparesis (weakness on one side of the body) have asymmetrical gaits because they take a shorter stride on their “bad” side. The patient feels unsteady on that side and minimizes the time on that foot. When a patient works with a therapist, they receive correction in that respect, making the strides closer in length-something the robot doesn’t do.
Hornby concluded the talk by introducing a new apparatus involving a treadmill and large rubber bands . The research team is looking at optimal size and stiffness of the rubber bands. No data on this yet as they’re still working on it. As a bonus, this setup costs <1% of the robotic device.
The best features of this talk were the videos Hornby played. To demonstrate that walking is patterned within the spinal nerves, he showed a video of half rat that had been injected with a certain drug. When placed on a treadmill, the rat began walking…even without input from a brain! Freaky but cool.
I have begun my second year of graduate studentdom! The good news is I’m only taking seven credit hours of class this time. My classes are:
Principles of Tissue Engineering: So far this class has been a lot of overview and review, but it should get better soon. We talked a little on Thursday about how cells can respond to their environment through mechanotransduction-basically, sensing a mechanical stimulus. As part of this class, I’ll have to pick a topic the professor doesn’t cover and give a student lecture on that topic.
Stem Cells: The neat thing about this class is its structure. Every week, a different faculty member comes in and lectures about a different aspect of stem cells, and then discusses their own research. A good number of the students are BioE like myself, but we also have people from Biology and even the dental school. The class members ask a lot of questions, and we have good discussions.
Going into this class, I knew the basics about stem cells. A few members of my lab use human mesenchymal (adult) stem cells in their research, so I’ve learned a little more about them in the past few months.
Seminar in Bioengineering: I thought this class would just consist of evaluating the weekly department seminars, but it’s turned out to be a little more involved. We’ll be discussing how to give an effective scientific talk and how to create presentations. I’m actually pleased we’re doing this for two reasons. One, communication of ideas is important. It’s one of the reasons I write this blog, although my writing here is aimed towards the layperson. Two, I don’t feel confident about my presentation skills. I’ve presented a lot for class, and I have to give a presentations for our lab group meetings, but I have a lot of room for improvement.
In addition, I have to attend the weekly BioE seminars. I should have gone to more seminars last semester, but they’re at noon on the other side of campus (UIC is divided into East and West Campus, and there’s a mile in between). If I’m in the middle of an experiment, that makes it hard to attend seminars. The first seminar looked at mechnical properties of several types of tissue in animals. It was very well attended, but that was mostly because there was free food 🙂
And of course, I’m still doing research, which has its ups and downs. I’ll talk about that in a separate post.