Combining Upper Limb Robotic Rehabilitation with Other Therapeutic Approaches after Stroke: Current Status, Rationale, and Challenges
Stroke patients with severe motor deficits cannot execute task-oriented rehabilitation exercises with their affected upper extremity. Advanced rehabilitation technology may support them in performing such reach-to-grasp movements. The challenge is, however, to provide assistance as needed, while maintaining the participants' commitment during the exercises. In this feasibility study, we introduced a closed-loop neuroprosthesis for reach-to-grasp assistance which combines adaptive multi-channel neuromuscular stimulation with a multi-joint arm exoskeleton. Eighteen severely affected chronic stroke patients were assisted by a gravity-compensating, seven-degree-of-freedom exoskeleton which was attached to the paretic arm for performing reach-to-grasp exercises resembling activities of daily living in a virtual environment. During the exercises, adaptive electrical stimulation was applied to seven different muscles of the upper extremity in a performance-dependent way to enhance the task-oriented movement trajectory. The stimulation intensity was individualized for each targeted muscle and remained subthreshold, i.e., induced no overt support. Closed-loop neuromuscular stimulation could be well integrated into the exoskeleton-based training, and increased the task-related range of motion (p = 0.0004) and movement velocity (p = 0.015), while preserving accuracy. The highest relative stimulation intensity was required to facilitate the grasping function. The facilitated range of motion correlated with the upper extremity Fugl-Meyer Assessment score of the patients (p = 0.028). Combining adaptive multi-channel neuromuscular stimulation with antigravity assistance amplifies the residual motor capabilities of severely affected stroke patients during rehabilitation exercises and may thus provide a customized training environment for patient-tailored support while preserving the participants' engagement.