Prof Leenta Grobler from Engineering is the leader of a team of staff and students who have been working on the NeuHand system since 2014. She also conceptualised a medical device development and commercialisation platform.
The platform is aimed at facilitating collaboration between the faculties of Engineering and of Health Sciences, among others, to develop novel products for the local market.
“The idea is to draw together a diverse group of role players required for successful medical device development,” says Leenta.
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One of the life-altering disabilities resulting from a stroke, is hand disability. Fortunately, the NWU’s NeuHand invention will bring these patients new hope.
Developed specifically for hand rehabilitation in South African conditions, the NeuHand system is an inexpensive, automated mechatronic rehabilitation system concept that the Faculty of Engineering has developed. (Mechatronics is an interdisciplinary area of engineering that combines mechanical and electrical engineering, and computer science.)
The NeuHand is one of several products currently being developed within the medical device development and commercialisation platform of the Faculty of Engineering and the Technology Transfer and Innovation Support office.
How the NeuHand can help
Stroke is particularly devastating because impairment can be debilitating and long term, requiring a high level of care and resulting in high costs.
“It is well established that rehabilitation is highly effective in reducing long-term impairment, delivering significant improved outcomes for affected individuals,” says Engineering’s Prof Leenta Grobler.
The drawback is that current practice tends to focus more on some aspects of rehabilitation than others.
During the first month after a stroke, when the patient has the most potential to regain muscle functionality, the focus is mainly on regaining gross motor mobility and speech. However, little or no attention is given to the rehabilitation of fine motor mobility during this time.
“This means there is a dire need for a hand rehabilitation system that can be used in the hospital while the patient is still under supervision, in rehabilitation facilities and at home after discharge,” says Leenta.
The great potential benefits of rehabilitation, combined with robotic technologies and the internet of things, was the inspiration behind the development of the NeuHand system.
Since the system is automated, initial rehabilitation can start immediately after a stroke has occurred, initialising the rebuilding of neural pathways between the brain and the hand.
How the NeuHand works
The NeuHand consists of a mechanical component, combined with sensors and a microprocessor (a small computer) with special software.
The mechanical part of the system uses sensors to pick up changes in its environment and sends this information to the microprocessor software, where it is processed. (The mechanical part of the system looks like an external skeleton.)
One of the biggest benefits of the NeuHand system is that the processed data can be accessed by physiotherapists via the internet, enabling them to prescribe exercises and then continuously monitor the patient’s progress remotely. This is extremely useful, especially in understaffed facilities, as it saves time and enables a physiotherapist to help more patients.
“Devices such as the NeuHand will also be especially helpful in rural communities as they can be used by patients who might not be able to travel long distances to see clinicians. That is why we hope to bring this system to market soon,” says Leenta.
Every day, approximately 360 South Africans have a stroke. Of these, about 110 die and 90 are left with a life-changing disability, making strokes the leading natural cause of disability among adults.
Celebrating small victories
Stroke survivors commonly experience a sense of loss and grief, leading to depression.
This is often worsened if they perceive they are making little or no progress. This is where the NeuHand system can help.
Since the system logs their progress continuously, they will be able to see and celebrate the small victories during their rehabilitation.
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