RobotA team of researchers, led by Michelle J. Johnson, Phd, director of Penn’s Rehabilitation Robotics Research & Development Lab, is working to create affordable robotic systems to help patients all over the world with non-traumatic brain injury, such as stroke and cerebral palsy, amputated limbs, and spinal cord injuries.

The Lab is dedicated to “robot-mediated rehabilitation” and focuses on the investigation and rehabilitation of dysfunction due to aging, neural disease, and neural injury. “Our mission is to combine robotics, rehabilitation, and neuroscience techniques to translate research findings into the development of assistive and therapeutic rehabilitation robots, capable of interacting safely with patients in real-world rehab environments,” said Johnson. “Ultimately, the goal is to improve patients’ quality of life and function of performing activities of daily living – such as eating, drinking and grooming – in supervised or under-supervised settings.”

For example, Flo is a humanoid robot being programmed especially to treat recovering stroke patients with upper body disabilities. Developed for use in hospitals, nursing homes, and other inpatient rehab facilities, Flo is remotely operated by a physician and can interact directly with patients via an attached video screen. Flo greets patients, demon­strates exercises, and spurs more movement by asking the patient to “grab my hand” and “push the button on top of my head.” Flo even offers words of encouragement after each accomplished task. 

Other robots in Johnson’s lab can be attached to injured limbs to aid in movement and provide feedback to patients. “Robots can positively aid in a patient’s recovery by working with them to improve range of motion and re-acquire motor skills lost because of stroke,” said Johnson.

“A critical aspect of what we’re doing in the lab is designing and developing affordable novel therapy robots to address the need for accessible, low-cost technologies with the potential for national and global applications,” said Johnson.  The goal is to create therapeutic robotic systems constructed not from expensive, one-of-a-kind parts that would have to be custom made and take weeks to replace but those which may literally one day be boxed up and sent halfway around the world.

Photo caption: “Flo" can help recovering stroke patients with upper body disabilities.