Participants in a study on stroke rehabilitation will operate this wrist-controlled robotic device in the MRI. (Credit: Universit of Delaware)

A researcher is developing methods using functional MRI and wrist-controlled robots to assess brain activity in response to a changing set of rehabilitation exercises in stroke patients.

Functional MRI, a non-invasive brain imaging technique, shows how patients’ brains respond to exercises they perform with the wrist-controlled, MRI-compatible robot.

The motor rehabilitation program is repetitive. Operating the wrist-controlled robot is akin to using a video game joystick — except that the robot interacts physically with the subject, applying forces to either assist or to challenge the player during the videogame.

The functional MRI measures study participants’ brain activity as they perform the exercises, as well as shortly before and after. The researcher will look for neural reorganization, especially in the brain’s cortico-thalamic-cerebellar pathway. Advanced analysis based on machine learning may also reveal other brain areas involved in motor learning. Armed with these results, medical professionals could develop customized rehabilitation to give patients exactly what their healing brain cells need.

Many robots used in medical research aren’t MRI-compatible, due to their size or materials.