Robots may play a role for those with disabilities who are trying to regain use of their limbs, according to a research team from Rochester Institute of Technology.

Their study uses physiological information—or bio-signals—produced by the body to improve the performance of external assistive devices (orthoses) that help those with physical disabilities, such as strokes or major spinal cord injuries, regain use of their arms and legs.

“The data collected through this project will assist designers and engineers in developing more sophisticated assistive aids for individuals suffering from various neuromuscular diseases and musculoskeletal injuries,” said Edward Brown, assistant professor of electrical engineering and director of the Biomechatronics Learning laboratory.

The National Science Foundation Computer, Information Science, and Engineering Directorate is underwriting the project, which includes researchers and students from the Rochester, New York-based institute; Georgia Tech, Atlanta; and Georgetown University, Wasington.

Brown says people with conditions such as muscular dystrophy, who have extremely weak muscles that waste away over time, may have trouble performing physical tasks such as picking up a cup or holding a spoon. A robotic orthosis that takes advantage of the individual’s residual strength and any remaining physiological information in their limbs—such as an electromyographic signal produced in muscles—could ultimately help muscular dystrophy patients regain significant use of the limbs.

The researchers are studying people with healthy muscles to develop a baseline, and plan to test their robotic system on patients who have muscular dystrophy. Results from the project will be used to enhance the development of orthotics technologies and contribute to the broader field of rehabilitation robotics, including the creation of better prosthetic limbs.