Robot's handshake helps stroke survivors

Researchers in Italy develop robotic arm whose movements show promise in helping stroke survivors re-learn how to use their hands, arms, and even shoulders.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore

For those who question whether handshakes can heal, here's a piece of literal evidence.

A stroke patient works with The Iron Arm. Vergaro et al., Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation

Shaking hands with a robotic arm could help stroke patients re-learn how to use their hands, arms, and even shoulders, according to researchers whose pilot trial results appear in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation.

The idea is for patients to try to guide the robot, nicknamed "Braccio di Ferro" (Iron Arm, also the Italian's name for Popeye), in a figure-eight motion above a desk. The arm pulls if they are moving in the correct direction and resists if they are moving in the wrong direction to what the researchers call "a minutely controlled degree."

Iron Arm has only been tested on 10 patients so far, all of whom are considered "chronic hemiplegics," but Elena Vergaro, from the University of Genoa, Italy, says even the small-scale results are statistically significant:

Our preliminary results from this small group of patients suggest that the scheme is robust and promotes a statistically significant improvement in performance. Future large-scale controlled clinical trials should confirm that robot-assisted physiotherapy can allow functional achievements in activities of daily life.

Download a PDF of the full pilot study here.