Using advanced robotics for personalized stroke rehabilitation

Sep 12th, 2023

Kelly Foss

Cutting-edge robotics to facilitate and measure recovery from neurological disease conditions, such as stroke.

That’s the groundbreaking research graduate student Michael Babalola is leading in Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine.

A Black man in his early 30s flashes a peace sign as he sits in a chair alongside a robotic device.
Michael Babalola’s research brings together his knowledge in medicine and technology to enhance health outcomes in the field of medicine.

“I’ve always been a multiskilled person, thanks to my parents,” said Mr. Babalola, who is in the second year of his master’s program. “I have a background in human physiology and I have some clinical experience working in the neurology unit at the biggest teaching hospital in Nigeria as a neurophysiologist for two years. In my free time, I also worked with a local robotic firm to teach the next generation about AI and robotics.”

Medicine and technology

Mr. Babalola decided to combine his interests and look for a career path where he could bring together his knowledge in medicine and technology to enhance health outcomes in the field of medicine.

“After discovering Memorial’s neuroscience program, I started looking for research labs and came across Dr. Michelle Ploughman,” he said. “I reached out to her and, in 2020, I moved to Canada.”

A man and a woman stand together next to a machine.
From left, Michael Babalola and Dr. Michelle Ploughman are using advanced robotics to measure recovery changes in people with upper limb weakness following a stroke.

He is currently conducting clinical research in Dr. Ploughman’s Recovery and Performance Laboratory, which is embedded in Newfoundland and Labrador Health Services’ Rehabilitation Program, located at the Miller Centre in St. John’s.

“We work hand-in-hand with our health authority to create and test innovative treatments for people living with disabling conditions,” said Dr. Ploughman. “Our laboratory’s infrastructure exists because of strategic partnerships between the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs program, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and Memorial University.”

Tracking recovery

Mr. Babalola is studying the feasibility of using advanced robotics to measure recovery changes before and after a novel rehabilitation intervention in people following a stroke.

His grandmother experienced a stroke, so he witnessed the accompanying therapy and treatment prior to her passing.

“Ever since then, I’ve developed some interest in what can be done to make sure recovery is taking place, track it and encourage people to continue doing what they need to do to get back to a better state of health.”

A woman seen from the back. She is sitting at the controls of a devise and small red dots are visible on the screen in front of her.
The Kinarm system can collect more than 300 data sets from a two-and-a-half-minute exercise.

He uses the Kinarm system, which combines a visual environment created by virtual reality and a physical environment created by a robot.

It allows individuals to perform certain tasks while the system records various qualitative and quantitative data.

At the end of the task, the researchers can determine their performance, the effectiveness of the therapy and how well the person responded to the particular task.

The robot can collect approximately 300 data sets from one two-and-a-half-minute exercise. It can also track changes from a person’s first day of therapy to their last.

“Imagine . . . a device that creates personalized treatments for people that will get them on their road to recovery faster.”— Michael Babalola

The Kinarm can also be programmed to provide a variety of exercises, with each task designed to focus on a particular individual’s needs.

“Imagine instead of a single therapy program for everyone, having access to a device that creates personalized treatments for people that will get them on their road to recovery faster,” he said.

For his study, Mr. Babalola recruited people who have had a stroke and who now have weakness in their upper limbs, among other symptoms. He then put them through a 10-day training regimen using the Kinarm and followed up with them 30 days later.

A blurry image of a hand in motion on the controls of a device.
The Kinarm system is engaging and makes typical rehab exercises fun, while giving users immediate feedback.

“I compared the gold standard clinical human rehabilitation test scores versus the robot’s measurements,” he said. “At the end of my research, I was able to conclude that a robot could “see” recovery changes that a human clinical professional might not notice. The participants also loved the robot and wanted to continue using it, even after the study was over.”

Fun and engaging

The positive reaction to the robot is due to the fact that the Kinarm is engaging: it gives instant feedback and takes typical rehab exercises, which can be long and physically tiring and makes them fun.

“Memorial University’s contribution to this cause has been nothing short of pivotal.”— Michael Babalola

In a healthy brain, it takes approximately 1,200 times of performing a task to create a new neural map; in a brain affected by stroke, it might take twice as much.

“That means continuous repetition of a task to regain that ability and the Kinarm makes them want to do it.”

For Mr. Babalola, the best part is seeing the impact of his research on the overall physical well-being and lifestyle on a patient.

“Our work aims to enhance patients’ quality of life and revolutionize how rehabilitation is approached in clinical settings,” he said. “It makes me happy, because I know I’m touching lives.”

He’s grateful to the university for giving him the opportunity to achieve his dream.

“Memorial University’s contribution to this cause has been nothing short of pivotal. The university’s commitment to providing up-to-date advanced technologies has been instrumental in driving our research forward and unlocking new possibilities in the field of neurorehabilitation.”