A stroke of genius

Stroke is a leading cause of serious long-term disability, with nearly 80% of the world’s 25.7 million stroke survivors experiencing upper limb disability. Survivors typically receive close to 45 minutes of therapy every day, despite the Australian Stroke Foundation’s recommendation of three hours of therapy daily. Instead of depending on clinicians and having to get to the hospital, what if there was a way for people affected by stroke to receive the recommended duration of therapy at home?

Two men smiling at camera, one wearing a mechanical glove.

Since 2010, students and researchers from the School of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) and the School of Design have been working on a device that people affected by stroke can use for rehabilitation through daily activities. Assigned to fourth-year engineering students, this year the baton has passed to Ben Klapaukh, an Electronics and Computer Systems (ECEN) student, supervised by Will Browne, Associate Professor, ECS.

“Studies have shown that people affected by stroke lose a lot of functionality in their upper body. The product that we’re designing can be worn like a glove. Different exercises used in the rehabilitative process need users to open and close their affected hand. The idea is to design the device in such a way that it can sense what the user is trying to do and support the action. The glove will also help them get a larger range of motion and manage simple routine tasks,” says Ben.

“The medical device industry offers a lot of scope for innovation and creativity”, notes Will. “There will always be the possibility of better products – which means there will always be engineering problems to solve. This project has been very interesting as it is assigned to different Masters or Honours students every year. Each of them brings a fresh perspective and new ways of approaching the project. Having come so far, we have a better understanding of what could actually work.”

“I chose the ECEN major because I’ve always been interested in understanding how things work, especially medical devices,” says Ben. I hope to be involved in making devices that can significantly improve the quality of peoples’ lives. This project has been interesting because so many people have been involved with it. It has been really good, reading through past reports and understanding how they thought—but it comes with challenges too. On the one hand, you pick up all the knowledge and experience that someone before you has gained and that is very helpful. On the other hand, how do you make it your project? But what engineering project comes with no challenges! The biggest one has been the size of the device. It has to be light, because the person wearing it may not have much strength in that hand. This aspect of the design has improved a lot over the years.”

Will adds “At this point, Ben’s focus is on making this a practical solution for people, to work with clinicians to improve the ergonomic features and to see whether there is market potential for such a product.”

“It could take a long time before it actually reaches the market, but we’re getting to the stage where we’re showing the device to clinicians for their views on how people affected by stroke can use it,” says Ben. “Ultimately, the point is to build something that will be useful to both clinicians and personal users. I’m sure there will be others who will work on the device before it’s completely ready. But it will be a great feeling to have been part of the team that built the device.”