Ankle rehab, re-engineered

ViRabt-300x200Ten months ago, Paul Douçot began con­tem­plating his tran­si­tion from under­grad­uate mechan­ical engi­neering studies to a grad­uate pro­gram in phys­ical therapy. “I didn’t want to abandon my engi­neering back­ground,” he said.

It turned out he wouldn’t have to.

Douçot con­nected with a variety of phys­ical ther­a­pists in the field and learned that one sorely lacking piece of tech­nology was an ade­quate strength and bal­ance trainer for people with ankle injuries. The cur­rent sys­tems are simply designed, don’t address bal­ance prob­lems, and cost upwards of $60,000.

Sev­eral years ear­lier, Con­stan­tinos Mavroidis, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Mechan­ical and Indus­trial Engi­neering, and asso­ciate pro­fessor of phys­ical therapy Mau­reen Holden had teamed up to pro­vide some­thing better to the field, but when Douçot met them, the system was still inad­e­quate. He assem­bled a team of four other mechan­ical engi­neering stu­dents to tackle the chal­lenge for their senior cap­stone project.

Douçot, JP Valen­zuela, Alex Maz­zotta, Alexandra Bugliari, and Nate Lavins, didn’t limit them­selves to the ear­lier designs of Mavroidis’ pre­vious stu­dents. “Instead of building off the old design, giving us a clean slate opened up a lot of pos­si­bil­i­ties,” said Bugliari.

They designed and fab­ri­cated what they call the Vir­tu­ally Inter­faced Robotic Ankle and Bal­ance Trainer, or vi-​​RABT, which pro­vides func­tion­ality never before seen in the field. The team worked under the guid­ance of Holden, Mavroidis, and grad­uate researcher Amir Far­ja­dian and received funding from a Provost Under­grad­uate Research Award for their work.

Two mil­lion people annu­ally suffer from ankle injuries, many due to the motor-​​skill impair­ments that come with stroke and other neu­ro­log­ical dis­or­ders, Holden said. As a result, treat­ment must involve both strength and bal­ance training, but cur­rently no system can do both.

Devel­oped in Mavroidis’ Bio­med­ical Mecha­tronics Lab­o­ra­tory in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Holden’s lab in phys­ical therapy, the vi-​​RABT device is equipped with two inde­pen­dent foot plat­forms that can rotate with two degrees of freedom and are con­stantly col­lecting data through a host of pres­sure sen­sors embedded within. Because vi-​​RABT can apply both assis­tive and resis­tive forces to the foot, it can be used across the range of physical-​​therapy treat­ment protocols.

The data col­lected by the sen­sors is doubly valu­able: For one, it can be used to guide a vir­tual avatar through an on-​​screen maze, cre­ating an engaging game to make the reha­bil­i­ta­tion process more enjoy­able. Addi­tion­ally, the data can be stored and used to assess patient improve­ment over time. Far­ja­dian is car­rying out this sophis­ti­cated pro­gram­ming implementation.

At RISE:2013, the research, inno­va­tion and schol­ar­ship expo hosted by the Center for Research Inno­va­tion in March, vi-​​RABT won the people’s choice award—indicating the crowd’s con­fi­dence in the system’s com­mer­cial promise. On a mass pro­duc­tion basis, vi-​​RABT would cost less than one-​​third of the less ver­sa­tile sys­tems cur­rently on the market. The group hopes to com­mer­cialize the device within the next two years.

The team intends to carry the device to that next step. Stu­dents have con­tinued to opti­mize it fol­lowing their cap­stone pre­sen­ta­tion this month. Far­ja­dian will develop the prac­tical con­trol soft­ware nec­es­sary to use it as a physical-​​therapy tool. Douçot and Holden will begin testing it with healthy sub­jects over the summer, and Holden already has stroke patients lined up for their turn on the vi-​​RABT, she said.

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