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Background: Robotic rehabilitation is a highly promising approach to recover lost functions after stroke or other neurological disorders. Unfortunately, robotic rehabilitation currently suffers from "motor slacking", a phenomenon in which the human motor system reduces muscle activation levels and movement excursions, ostensibly to minimize metabolic- and movement-related costs. Consequently, the patient remains passive and is not fully engaged during therapy. To overcome this limitation, we envision a new class of body-powered robots and hypothesize that motor slacking could be reduced if individuals must provide the power to move their impaired limbs via their own body (i.e., through the motion of a healthy limb).

Objective: To test whether a body-powered exoskeleton (i.e. robot) could reduce motor slacking during robotic training.

Methods: We developed a body-powered robot that mechanically coupled the motions of the user's elbow joints. We tested this passive robot in two groups of subjects (stroke and able-bodied) during four exercise conditions in which we controlled whether the robotic device was powered by the subject or by the experimenter, and whether the subject's driven arm was engaged or at rest. Motor slacking was quantified by computing the muscle activation changes of the elbow flexor and extensor muscles using surface electromyography.

Results: Subjects had higher levels of muscle activation in their driven arm during self-powered conditions compared to externally-powered conditions. Most notably, subjects unintentionally activated their driven arm even when explicitly told to relax when the device was self-powered. This behavior was persistent throughout the trial and did not wane after the initiation of the trial.

Conclusions: Our findings provide novel evidence indicating that motor slacking can be reduced by self-powered robots; thus demonstrating promise for rehabilitation of impaired subjects using this new class of wearable system. The results also serve as a foundation to develop more sophisticated body-powered robots (e.g., with controllable transmissions) for rehabilitation purposes.


PMCID: PMC6817341





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Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience

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