An assistant professor at United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) is developing a smart suit to help stroke patients reestablish brain to muscle connections.
The high-tech sensor, which is being developed by Fady Saeed Alnajjar, assistant professor in the department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at UAEU, has been designed to aid stroke recovery and rehabilitation by reading muscle activation patterns in patients and then sending that information to the brain using a matrix of vibrations to vibrate the muscles. The vibrations then retrain movement in the muscles, picking up old patterns.
“The idea here is to understand how our brain is controlling our muscles,” explains Alnajjar. “After a stroke, the brain loses the best way to communicate with muscles, which causes paralysis. We need to teach the brain again to communicate with these muscles. What language does the brain use to talk to the muscles in our arms or to move or punch? Can we encode this language, understand it and use it to talk back to the brain through the muscles? If we can, then we can teach the brain the skills needed in a shorter time frame.”
The assistant professor shares the following example to illustrate how the sensor works. “Let’s say a person has a stroke in his left arm and he still has movement in his right arm. If I ask the person to move his right arm that person's brain will pick the correct muscle patterns to move his right arm. Our EMG sensors will record these patterns from the right arm, and mimic similar patterns and send it to the arm affected by stroke through the vibrations. By doing that we can speed up the recovery process. The origin muscle patterns are always stored in the intact side. We just need it to lead the training in the affected side, and vibrations seem to be working."
Currently there is not a solution in the market that enables complete recovery of motor function after stroke. However, Alnajjar, also a visiting researcher at Japan’s RIKEN Brain Science Institute, hopes his invention will change that. “Reading muscle patterns (muscle synergy) and highlighting motor skills is an area that I have worked in before,” he explains. “What’s new here is how to use the motor skill information to recall the healthy patterns from the brain to the musclesby using vibrations. This is not currently in the market.”
Alnajjar says doctors in the UAE have so far been receptive to the smart suit, which can also be used for quick skill acquisition for athletes. He is now seeking approval from the ethics committee before partnering with Al Ain Hospital on a pilot test with patients. He adds: “Of course I have to work in simplifying the product, at making it easy to work with and cost efficient since it is expensive at this stage.”
Looking at the UAEU more broadly, and the assistant professor is hoping to build a research team of students to help “develop their understanding about the importance of research”. In addition, Alnajjar is working with Al Ain Hospital on applying robotics in the area of autism rehabilitation. “We have just started cooperating with Al Ain Hospital to apply robotics for rehabilitation for autism – which will be the first robotic rehabilitation center in UAE. The proposal has been submitted, and we are waiting for the ethical approval.”