March 14, 2019

Recent reporting indicates that the rehabilitation robot market will grow dramatically, from $641 million in 2018 to $6.4 billion by 2025. Catholic University’s Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) is poised to prepare students for that thriving field.

In the fall of 2018, the School of Engineering received a $4.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to create RERC.

Robots are becoming increasingly more useful during physical therapy, demonstrating more possible ways of helping than a human. “Robots can move many joints at the same time (e.g., finger joints), which is often quite difficult for physical therapists to do,” says Sang Wook Lee, associate professor of biomedical engineering.

“Robots can provide therapy over longer periods of time and outside of the clinic in the case of wearable devices,” says Peter Lum, chair of biomedical engineering and director of RERC. “They have sensors that provide immediate information on the status of the patient during therapy,  which can be used to adapt the treatment strategy accordingly to improve outcomes and to better understand if a particular therapy strategy is working or not. And they can be used as a platform to explore new treatment strategies.”

Catholic University students — at both the undergraduate and graduate levels — are benefitting from this new center by being able to gain direct experience in developing rehabilitation robots and monitoring how they work on real patients.

“Students have the chance to work on projects as interns and volunteers, to help those with a disability that will improve their quality of life. They will learn about the complex neurophysiology associated with neurological disorders such as stroke and most of all, they get to engineer new technologies like robots, which is cool,” says Lee.

Melissa Sandison, a doctoral candidate working on projects at RERC, is developing a 3D printed robotic hand exoskeleton for at home stroke rehabilitation, called HandMATE. “The patients I see have diminished hand function as a result of a stroke,” she says. “We have created a robotic device that will assist the patients moving their fingers and thumb. The patients can then complete therapeutic exercises at home, that they would otherwise be unable to complete.”

“We also developed an app, which is integrated with the robotic device. The app can take patients through guided therapy sessions, provide feedback on performance and be used to play video games. We want to motivate and make therapy as engaging as it can be,” says Sandison

“Rehabilitation robotics has grown steadily over the past 20 years and promises to become an increasingly important component of standard care following neurological injury,” says Lum.

RERC’s mission is to advance innovative rehabilitation technologies that will improve the quality of life for an individual with a neurologic impairment. They develop and test devices to enhance, promote, and expand, as well as train the next generation of clinicians and engineers. RERC and the students involved are leading the way and setting the pace for a growing industry that will shape a significant part of the future of healthcare.

“This is one of my favorite parts of my job! I love working directly with patients, and I especially love seeing them improve as a result of our devices. I saw a patient that has been a part of three of our last studies. Initially when we first met, she had very little hand function and was frustrated that she could not complete many of the tasks we take for granted (e.g brushing your own hair). Now she has totally regained her hand function,” says Sandison.

The center has six projects underway, each are done in collaboration with different institutions, including MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, Children’s Hospital, Georgetown University, and Johns Hopkins. Projects include hand exoskeletons for stroke patients, an ankle robotic device for children with cerebral palsy, novel techniques to measure the amount of functional use of the impaired arm post-stroke, and studying psychophysical factors affecting limb use of stroke survivors.

“I think the RERC will provide me with a diverse network and new opportunities to pursue after I complete my PhD.  Since this work is so applicable to the real world, I would like to learn about commercializing my research products in order to make them more accessible to patients,” says Rafael Casas, a doctoral candidate working at RERC.

To find out more information on the RERC, visit https://engineering.catholic.edu/rerc-dc/index.html

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