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Electrical Engineering Group Develops Rehabilitation Technology

May 6, 2016
Ph.D. student Maja Gorsic (left) works with study volunteer Deborah Kretzschmar using assistive tech
Ph.D. student Maja Gorsic (left) works with study volunteer Deborah Kretzschmar using assistive technology, designed to help restore mobility for stroke survivors and individuals with traumatic brain injuries.

Domen Novak is counting on the help of some robot friends to encourage rehabilitation for stroke survivors. 

Because motivation, or lack thereof, is often cited as one of the reasons someone quits or cuts back on rehabilitation efforts after a stroke or traumatic brain injury, Novak hopes the addition of assistive technology can add some entertainment value to the process.

An assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Wyoming, he studies human-robot interaction with an emphasis in rehabilitation robotics. He is interested in the information that robots can obtain about human performance, intentions and emotional states via sensors such as heart rate, electromyography, electroencephalography and eye-tracking. His area combines robotics, biomedical signal processing, sensor fusion and virtual reality.

“Let’s say you’ve had a stroke, a brain injury or a spinal injury,” Novak says. “You can’t move limbs, so you need to be doing a lot of exercise to regain those abilities. But you need physical support, motivation and feedback to know what you’re doing right and wrong. Robots will help guide your limbs. You can have virtual reality give you feedback on what you should be doing and you can play some games to keep things interesting.

“You want something that knows what you want to do, when you want to do it. You need something that taps into your body to measure that.”

Novak studied electrical engineering in Slovenia, but instead of focusing on hardware, he became interested in how the field could affect people. He earned a Ph.D., did a postdoctoral research project and came to UW in September 2014. Since then, he has worked with various local groups which deal with medical conditions that inhibit movement. Novak believes as the global population ages, this assistive technology will become more mainstream.

“We do a lot of work with some people and you really see they have a decreased quality of life,” Novak says. “You have people coming in who haven’t been able to unclench their hand for 5-10 years and they are so hopeful that there will be something that can help.”

Novak and his team have met with stroke-support groups in Cheyenne and Laramie. They’ve brought their technology to meetings to demonstrate capabilities, focusing on technology for in-home use. For all its charms, Wyoming does have a disadvantage for residents who reside in low-population centers. For these people, getting rehabilitation might mean driving for several hours.

“Wyoming is a good user area for this,” Novak says. “The rural population doesn’t have access to rehabilitation like folks in cities. This kind of technology has a lot more use in areas like this, where you might have to drive two hours to get therapy. If we can deliver you technology to let you do this at home, it’s not such a hardship.”

Melissa Wheeler sees the potential in Novak’s research. She is a case manager on the Acute Rehabilitation Unit and serves as a coordinator for a stroke survivors support group at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center (CRMC). She’s been a nurse for five years and has served in her current capacity for two years. She became familiar with the research after hearing a firsthand account from an individual who participated. She says CRMC uses some assistive technology in its treatments.

“We’re taking baby steps,” Wheeler says. “It’s not something that’s easily introduced, but when you realize the benefits, that’s when it becomes acceptable.”

With an aging population nationwide and particularly in Wyoming, technology like this could become more commonly used.

“People have more access to computers and it’s not such a reach for them to consider that technology to assist them in recovery or even after to keep them sharp,” Wheeler says. “That’s the trend we are going to see–technology can touch people who are aging. We are seeing it in other areas in the medical field. If you have the internet, there’s a lot you can do. There isn’t any reason this couldn’t reach those distant areas, as well as anyone in Cheyenne.”

Two graduate students help Novak perform research. Ali Darzi is pursuing a Ph.D. after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electronic engineering from a university in Iran. He designs environments for patients to navigate using a large joystick. Darzi can tailor challenges specifically to limitations of each particular patient. There’s even a personality questionnaire to figure out if the individual is competitive, which could mean they would be more suitable for certain games. His objective is to figure out motivational factors for each individual.

“Rehabilitation is boring, but using games may make it a little more fun or attract people to do it several times a day,” Darzi says. 

As a young woman in Slovenia, Ph.D. student Maja Gorsic had plans to become a doctor. But there was a problem—“I’m afraid of seeing blood,” she says with a laugh. Gorsic worked with Novak on a project in Europe prior to coming to UW. He invited her to study under him for her Ph.D., but she had one condition: are we going to do something to help people? She has helped develop handheld paddles that help users navigate a ping-pong game to develop and improve hand-eye coordination.

“When you see that person with these conditions and see how eager they are to try new technologies to overcome it, you say to yourself, ‘We really need to figure this out,’” she says.

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