Forming A New Bridge to Recovery
UCI Researchers are Using Robot-Assisted Therapies to Help Patients Regain Movement after a Stroke
Sumner Norman is working with the smallest of movements to make huge gains in the field of stroke recovery. As a Ph.D. candidate in UCI’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department, Sumner has designed a therapy model for people with limited movement as a result of a stroke. He has developed this system using mathematical and neural-network models of the brain that can simulate motor learning in order to see how the brain develops after it is damaged.
“The human brain is very resilient and can form new connections outside damaged areas in order to resume normal motor function, if the right therapy is applied,” says Sumner.
Using exoskeleton robots that are strapped to the patient’s arm and fingers, an EEG cap (the ones you often see in films with dozens of wires leading out of it) detects the brainwaves that would have moved the patient’s extremities before the stroke. These brainwaves then trigger the exoskeleton robots to move, “skipping over” the injury. This exercise helps the brain to form new bridges and connections between impulse and movement by locating the areas of the brain most efficient for recovery.
The kind of brain-computer interface technology that he is working with is crucial because approximately three percent of the U.S. population has been affected by strokes and have impaired motor skills as a result.
“Even the smallest of improvements in rehabilitation can make a big difference in the quality of life of the patient and their caretakers,” Sumner says. “The difference between being able to brush their own teeth or tie their own shoes, or to feed themselves without assistance. Gains in small motor skills would reduce stress for individuals and families as well as on the healthcare system itself, which spends close to $72 billion a year in the U.S.”
Sumner has received several accolades for his research and most recently he came in second place in UCI’s Grad Slam campus finals. He also received the Public Impact Distinguished Fellow Award for his research. “This award gives me the opportunity to represent the great science that can improve the lives of Americans living with disability after a stroke,” Sumner says. “It not only supports my doctoral research towards solving disability after stroke, but gives a voice to the families of millions of stroke survivors who can’t wait for rehabilitation technology to arrive in the homes of their loved ones.”
In the future, Sumner would like to continue leading teams of engineers and scientists in the fields of energy and technology transfer, and in emerging markets for high-tech solutions. His work at UCI has solidified his interest in the combination of science and technology communication, policy, and advocacy, and he hopes to continue work that incorporates all of these concepts. Sumner wants not only to make innovations in technology, but to make advances that will tangibly improve quality of life for millions of people.
In addition to his many professional accomplishments, he has also mastered the art of work-life-balance by making time for his other passions including photography, classic cars, and playing the piano. If that weren’t enough, Sumner is an athlete and has competed for the UCI triathlon team for three years, and the UCI cycling team for two years after that. He also loves to travel, and makes it a priority to leave the U.S. at least once a year