Sunday, April 17, 2011

Innovative Medical Technologies Help to Rehabilitate Patients’ Mental and Physical Abilities

Employing approaches that include computer gaming methods, virtual reality and robotics, New Zealand researchers are at the forefront of developing new medical technologies that help patients regain cognitive and physical abilities following stroke, trauma or other debilitating illness.
“We are today seeing the emergence of diverse scientific efforts throughout New Zealand’s research institutions and companies that are generating innovative new technologies and products directed at helping those recovering from serious injuries or illness more fully participate in daily life,” said George Arnold, Program Manager, Health, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. “Many of these advances are resulting from the effective convergence of computer science and medical technology.”
For example, a computer game-like system developed by scientists at New Zealand’s Crown Research Institute, Industrial Research Limited (IRL), and licensed to start-up company, Im-Able Ltd., uses a handlebar-like air mouse and a series of simple computer exercises to improve arm movements, coordination and cognitive skills of patients with neurological or musculoskeletal impairment. “Patient feedback to date has been beyond our expectations, with patients reporting gains in function from use of the Able-X device, even many years after their stroke injury,” said Sunil Vather, Ph.D., Chief Executive of Im-Able. “An affordable product designed for easy use at home, the Able-X allows patients to continue their rehabilitation in their own time and speed once they have left the hospital or rehabilitation facility.” Already commercially available in New Zealand and Australia, Dr. Vather noted that the company planned to seek both U.S. FDA approval and a European CE Mark for the product during 2011.
Research at the University of Canterbury under a program led by Professor Tanja Mitrovic is aimed at extending 16 years of research advances in the field of artificial intelligence and computer-based learning to helping patients improve their cognitive skills following a stroke. “We hope to use the knowledge we’ve gained in creating responsive computer-based learning environments for students at the university and high school level, to develop systems that can evaluate an individual stroke patient’s skills and respond with appropriately challenging tasks that help improve their attention and working memory,” said Prof. Mitrovic. The multi-disciplinary research effort, which includes collaboration with Dr. Stellan Ohlsson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Chicago, is supported by a prestigious Marsden Fund grant for fundamental scientific research from the Royal Society of New Zealand.
Advances in robotics are also helping wheelchair users to increase their mobility and ability to overcome barriers in daily life, as illustrated by Rex, the robotic exoskeleton. Designed and built in New Zealand by Rex Bionics, Rex is not a replacement for the wheelchair, but it enables people who cannot walk because of spinal cord injury or with chronic physical conditions such as muscular dystrophy to stand, walk, turn, and climb stairs and slopes. “Rex enables users to stand and socialize or work, and to overcome many day-to-day obstacles like climbing a few steps into a building or using a standard kitchen,” said Jenny Morel, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Rex Bionics. “In addition, there are well documented medical benefits associated with standing and walking, such as improved circulation and bone density, better skin condition, fewer bladder infections and pressure sores that can come with extensive wheelchair use.”
“I’ve found the New Zealand medical technology sector’s creativity and desire to explore and innovate to be extremely exciting,” says Professor Jonathan Sackier of the University of Virginia, who has played a significant role in the development of many medical technologies and serves as a director to Rex Bionics. “A surprisingly large number of innovative medical products with the potential to significantly help those whose lives are affected by injury or chronic illness are coming out of this small country.” more read....