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Harnessing health tech to improve stroke patient outcomes

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AI, cloud and robotic technologies are being harnessed to provide a better prognosis for stroke patients with upper limb mobility issues.

AiBle is a three-year cross-border project between the UK and France to look at ways to improve the recovery experience of stroke patients, with a focus on developing an upper-limb rehabilitation exoskeleton robot based on AI and cloud computing.

It aims to develop a new generation of exoskeleton that will provide advanced functionality, enabling remote but active rehabilitation. To do this, the project focuses on integrating artificial intelligence, cloud computing and virtual reality.

The lead organisation on the project is Portsmouth University, under the guidance of Professor Zhaojie Ju, professor in machine learning and robotics.

He tells Health Tech World: “The project was planned for almost a year, and in the end launched in June 2020, the height of the Covid pandemic.

“The pandemic did set us back to a certain extent, particularly when it came to collecting data from patients because of the restrictions in both France and the UK.

“However, beyond that, it’s not had too much of an impact; while it has been a challenge to get all of the partners together, and we’re still reliant on meeting virtually, that does mean we meet more often than we would have if we were doing it in person.

“The initial idea was discussed among four partners at the beginning, as we realised that, based on our expertise, we could use recent technological developments to help stroke patient to recover sooner and more efficiently.

“We checked and there was nothing similar on the market, so we came up with the rough idea, before reaching out to partners in the industrial sector for their support.”

According to figures from the Stroke Association, which has been heavily involved in the AiBle project, in the UK, someone has a stroke every five minutes: 100,000 people have strokes each year.

Over three-quarters of stroke survivors are left with a degree of upper-limb weakness, along with pain and stiffness.

The use of robotics in stroke rehabilitation is nothing new; however, what sets AiBle apart is the use of cloud computing to make the process accessible remotely – the importance of which has been highlighted during the pandemic.

Professor Ju added: “While the existing exoskeleton technology exists, they are not particularly efficient.

“In terms of the cloud, we found there aren’t any exoskeleton robots which use cloud computing yet, which is why we’re working to integrate it, especially in the wake of Covid-19.

“Our long-term aim is to reduce the cost and time, and also to make the rehabilitation process remote, using the cloud computing tech.

“This would allow stroke patients to be treated at home, with remote support from doctors.

“As well as medical rehab, patients also need family support, so treatment can take place at home or at least in a centre that is handy for their home, as well as saving time for doctors, who monitor progress remotely.”

The technology works by introducing novel sensors to recognise stroke patients’ motion intention. The signals collected from the patients are then sent to a cloud-based data processing centre, where the centralised database – which is based on AI service – will be accessed by all functional units.

This will guide the robot’s movements, monitor the patient’s progress and, should it be needed, used to provide expert assistance remotely.

The project will also feature a virtual reality interface for performing daily living activities which will be used in addition to conventional therapy to increase treatment intensity for improved recovery.

Professor Ju added: “We’re looking to increase the uptake of robot-enhanced rehab, and to do that, we need to make it more interesting.

“We are working on designing VR games for the patients so it makes it more interesting, and gets them fully engaged in the process.

“The robot also increases the intensity and repetitions of movements, which will ultimately lead to improved upper limb outcomes.”

Professor Ju and the team hope to have the prototype ready by June 2023, three years after the project launched, when it will have been clinically evaluated and ready for synchronization.

AiBle in an EU Interreg project, which provides a framework for the implementation of joint actions and policy exchanges across member states.

The project overall has a budget of €4,875,139.99, of which €3,333,849.26 has been co-financed by the European Regional Development Funds.

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