Neurological diseases causing motor/cognitive impairments are among the most common causes of adult-onset disability. More than one billion of people are affected worldwide, and this number is expected to increase in upcoming years, because of the rapidly aging population. The frequent lack of complete recovery makes it desirable to develop novel neurorehabilitative treatments, suited to the patients, and better targeting the specific disability. To date, rehabilitation therapy can be aided by the technological support of robotic-based therapy, non-invasive brain stimulation, and neural interfaces. In this perspective, we will review the above methods by referring to the most recent advances in each field. Then, we propose and discuss current and future approaches based on the combination of the above. As pointed out in the recent literature, by combining traditional rehabilitation techniques with neuromodulation, biofeedback recordings and/or novel robotic and wearable assistive devices, several studies have proven it is possible to sensibly improve the amount of recovery with respect to traditional treatments. We will then discuss the possible applied research directions to maximize the outcome of a neurorehabilitation therapy, which should include the personalization of the therapy based on patient and clinician needs and preferences.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), neurological disorders and injuries account for the 6.3% of the global burden of disease (GBD) (1, 2). With more than 6% of DALY (disability-adjusted life years) in the world, neurological disorders represent one of the most widespread clinical condition. Among neurological disorders, more than half of the burden in DALYs is constituted by cerebral-vascular disease (55%), such as stroke. Stroke, together with spinal cord injury (SCI), accounts for 52% of the adult-onset disability and, over a billion people (i.e., about a 15% of the population worldwide) suffer from some form of disability (3). These numbers are likely to increase in the coming years due to the aging of the population (4), since disorders affecting people aged 60 years and older contribute to 23% of the total GBD (5).
Standard physical rehabilitation favors the functional recovery after stroke, as compared to no treatment (6). However, the functional recovery is not always satisfactory as only 20% of patients fully resume their social life and job activities (7). Hence, the need of more effective and patient-tailored rehabilitative approaches to maximize the functional outcome of neurological injuries as well as patients’ quality of life (8). Modern technological methodologies represent one of the most recent advances in neurorehabilitation, and an increasing body of evidence supports their role in the recovery from brain and/or medullary insults. This manuscript provides a perspective on how technologies and methodologies could be combined in order to maximize the outcome of neurorehabilitation.
Current Systems and Therapeutic Approaches for Neurorehabilitation
The great progress made in interdisciplinary fields, such as neural engineering (9, 10), has allowed to investigate many neural mechanisms, by detecting and processing the neural signals at high spatio-temporal resolution, and by interfacing the nervous system with external devices, thus restoring neurological functions lost due to disease/injury. The progress continues in parallel to technological advancements. The last two decades there has seen a large proliferation of technological approaches for human rehabilitation, such as robots, wearable systems, brain stimulation, and virtual environments. In the next sections, we will focus on: robotic therapy, non-invasive brain stimulation (NIBS), and neural interfaces.
Robots for neurorehabilitation are designed to support the administration of physical exercises to the upper or lower extremities, with the purpose of promoting neuro-motor recovery. This technology has a relatively long history, dating back to the early 1990s (11). Robot devices for rehabilitation differ widely in terms of mechanical design, number of degrees of freedom, and control architectures. As regards the mechanical design, robots may have either a single point of interaction (i.e., end effector) with the user body (endpoint robots or manipulanda) or multiple points of interaction (exoskeletons and wearable robots) (12).
Endpoint robots for the upper extremity, include Inmotion2 (IMT, USA) (13), KINARM End-Point (BKIN, Canada), and Braccio di Ferro (14) (Figure 1A1, left). Only some of these devices have been tested in randomized clinical trials (15), confirming an improvement of upper limb motor function after stroke (16). However, convincing evidence in favor of significant changes in activities of daily living (ADL) indicators is lacking (17), possibly because performance in ADL is highly affected by hand functionality. A good example of lower limb endpoint robot is represented by gait trainer GT1 (Reha-Stim, Germany). Its efficacy was tested by Picelli et al. (18), who demonstrated an improvement in multiple clinical measures in subjects with Parkinson’s disease following robotic-assisted rehabilitation when compared to physical rehabilitation alone (18). Endpoint robots are also available for postural rehabilitation. For instance, Hunova (Movendo Technology, Italy, launched in 2017) is equipped with a seat and a platform that induce multidirectional movements to improve postural stability (Figure 1A1, right).