Robotic arm will change how medical students learn

The mechanical arm developed through a Jump ARCHES grant will be used to teach medical students how to diagnose hypertonia.
The mechanical arm developed through a Jump ARCHES grant will be used to teach medical students how to diagnose hypertonia.
A project underway in the Human Dynamics and Controls Lab could revolutionize the way medical students learn about muscle diseases in the arm. 
MechSE graduate student Yinan Pei is working to develop a simulation arm that will help future doctors learn to diagnose abnormal muscle tone in patients with brain injuries.
The project is a part of Jump ARCHES (Applied Research for Community Health through Engineering and Simulation), a partnership between the College of Engineering at Illinois and the Jump Trading Simulation and Education Center at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria. 
Continuing the progress made by mechanical engineering graduate alumna Jiahui (Carrie) Liang, and under the guidance of Professor Liz Hsiao-Wecksler, Pei said his focus now is on hypertonia, a condition in which patients have more muscle tension than normal, resulting in decreased motion. Hypertonia comes from brain lesions after strokes and from Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, or multiple sclerosis. 
“For most people, when you stretch and flex or extend your arm you don’t feel a lot of resistance,” Pei said. “But for patients with hypertonia there is a substantial increase in the amount of resistance you can feel in your elbow joint.”
Diagnosing hypertonia and its severity is a struggle. Right now, medical students evaluate a patient’s arm and have to subjectively judge the extent of the tension in the arm—and there is currently no standard on which patients are judged. 
“All those new medical professionals need to go through a lot of practice to be able to give a good assessment,” Pei said. “At the same time, the availability of patients is very limited sometimes.” 
To solve this problem, the simulated arm bends like a typical arm and the user can change the level of resistance working against the arm movement. The machine uses a hydraulic device to simulate the structure of the arm. 
Pei hopes it will give medical students and doctors the opportunity to practice diagnosing different levels of hypertonia consistently on a dependable source. He said his goal is to make the simulator as realistic as possible. 
“I think it’s really important for engineers to have a strong clinical connection,” Hsiao-Wecksler said. “Since clinicians are the ones working in the space, they understand how an engineer’s work can be applicable.”
The project was one of the first two to be funded by Jump ARCHES, and is a collaborative effort among the research groups of Hsiao-Wecksler, MechSE assistant professor Randy Ewoldt, and Bradley University professors Steven Tippett and Martin Morris.