[ARTICLE] An Attention-Controlled Hand Exoskeleton for the Rehabilitation of Finger Extension and Flexion Using a Rigid-Soft Combined Mechanism – Full Text

Hand rehabilitation exoskeletons are in need of improving key features such as simplicity, compactness, bi-directional actuation, low cost, portability, safe human-robotic interaction, and intuitive control. This article presents a brain-controlled hand exoskeleton based on a multi-segment mechanism driven by a steel spring. Active rehabilitation training is realized using a threshold of the attention value measured by an electroencephalography (EEG) sensor as a brain-controlled switch for the hand exoskeleton. We present a prototype implementation of this rigid-soft combined multi-segment mechanism with active training and provide a preliminary evaluation. The experimental results showed that the proposed mechanism could generate enough range of motion with a single input by distributing an actuated linear motion into the rotational motions of finger joints during finger flexion/extension. The average attention value in the experiment of concentration with visual guidance was significantly higher than that in the experiment without visual guidance. The feasibility of the attention-based control with visual guidance was proven with an overall exoskeleton actuation success rate of 95.54% (14 human subjects). In the exoskeleton actuation experiment using the general threshold, it performed just as good as using the customized thresholds; therefore, a general threshold of the attention value can be set for a certain group of users in hand exoskeleton activation.

Introduction

Hand function is essential for our daily life (Heo et al., 2012). In fact, only partial loss of the ability to move our fingers can inhibit activities of daily living (ADL), and even reduce our quality of life (Takahashi et al., 2008). Research on robotic training of the wrist and hand has shown that improvements in finger or wrist level function can be generalized across the arm (Lambercy et al., 2011). Finger muscle weakness is believed to be the main cause of loss of hand function after strokes, especially for finger extension (Cruz et al., 2005Kamper et al., 2006). Hand rehabilitation requires repetitive task exercises, where a task is divided into several movements and patients are asked to practice those movements to improve their hand strength, range of motion, and motion accuracy (Takahashi et al., 2008Ueki et al., 2012). High costs of traditional treatments often prevent patients from spending enough time on the necessary rehabilitation (Maciejasz et al., 2014). In recent years, robotic technologies have been applied in motion rehabilitation to provide training assistance and quantitative assessments of recovery. Studies show that intense repetitive movements with robotic assistance can significantly improve the hand motor functions of patients (Takahashi et al., 2008Ueki et al., 2008Kutner et al., 2010Carmeli et al., 2011Wolf et al., 2006).

Patients should be actively involved in training to achieve better rehabilitation results (Teo and Chew, 2014Li et al., 2018). Motor rehabilitation has implemented Brain Computer Interface (BCI) methods as one of the means to detect human movement intent and get patients to be actively involved in the motor training process (Teo and Chew, 2014Li et al., 2018). Motor imagery-based BCIs (Jiang et al., 2015Pichiorri et al., 2015Kraus et al., 2016Vourvopoulos and Bermúdez I Badia, 2016), movement-related cortical potentials-based BCIs (Xu et al., 2014Bhagat et al., 2016), and steady-state motion visual evoked potential-based BCIs (Zhang et al., 2015) have been used to control rehabilitation robots. However, the high cost and complexity of the preparation in utilizing these methods mean that most current BCI devices are more suitable for research purposes than clinical practices. This is attributable to the fact that the ease of use and device cost are two main factors to consider during the selection of human movement intent detection based on BCIs for practical use (van Dokkum et al., 2015Li et al., 2018). Therefore, non-invasive, easy-to-install BCIs that are convenient to use with acceptable accuracy should be introduced to hand rehabilitation robot control.

Owing to the versatility and complexity of human hands, developing hand exoskeleton robots for rehabilitation assistance in hand movements is challenging (Heo et al., 2012Arata et al., 2013). In recent years, hand exoskeleton devices have drawn much research attention, and the results of current research look promising (Heo et al., 2012). Hand exoskeleton devices mainly use linkage, wire, or hydraulically/pneumatically driven mechanisms (Polygerinos et al., 2015a). The rigid mechanical design of linkage-based mechanisms provides robustness and reliability of power transmission, and has been widely applied in hand exoskeletons (Tong et al., 2010Ito et al., 2011Arata et al., 2013Cui et al., 2015Polygerinos et al., 2015a). However, the safety problem of misalignment between the human finger joints and the exoskeleton joints may occur during rehabilitation movements (Heo et al., 2012Cui et al., 2015). Compensation approaches used in current studies make the mechanism more complicated (Nakagawara et al., 2005Fang et al., 2009Ho et al., 2011). Pneumatic and hydraulic soft hand exoskeletons, which are made of flexible materials, are proposed to assist hand opening or closing (Ang and Yeow, 2017Polygerinos et al., 2015aYap et al., 2015b). However, despite bi-directional assistance—namely finger flexion and extension—being essential for hand rehabilitation (Iqbal et al., 2014), a large group of current soft hand exoskeleton devices only provide finger flexion assistance (Connelly et al., 2010Polygerinos et al., 20132015aYap et al., 2015ab). Wire-driven mechanisms can also be complex to transmit bi-directional movements since wires can only transmit forces along one direction (In et al., 2015Borboni et al., 2016). In order to transmit bi-directional movements, a tendon-driven hand exoskeleton was proposed, where the tendon works as a tendon during the extension movement and as compressed flexible beam constrained into rectilinear slides mounted on the distal sections of the glove during flexion (Borboni et al., 2016). Arata et al. (2013) attempted to avoid wire extension and other associated issues by proposing a hand exoskeleton with a three-layered sliding spring mechanism. Hand rehabilitation exoskeleton devices are still seeking to achieve key features such as low complexity, compactness, bi-directional actuation, low cost, portability, safe human-robotic interaction, and intuitive control.

In this article, we describe the design and characterization of a novel multi-segment mechanism driven by one layer of a steel spring that can assist both extension and flexion of the finger. Thanks to the inherent features of this multi-segment mechanism, joint misalignment between the device and the human finger is no longer a problem, enhancing the simplicity and flexibility of the device. Moreover, its compliance makes the hand exoskeleton safe for human-robotic interaction. This mechanism can generate enough range of motion with a single input by distributing an actuated linear motion to the rotational motions of finger joints. Active rehabilitation training is realized by using a threshold of the attention value measured by a commercialized electroencephalography (EEG) sensor as a brain-controlled switch for the hand exoskeleton. Features of this hand exoskeleton include active involvement of patients, low complexity, compactness, bi-directional actuation, low cost, portability, and safe human-robotic interaction. The main contributions of this article include: (1) prototyping and evaluation of a hand exoskeleton with a rigid-soft combined multi-segment mechanism driven by one layer of a steel spring with a sufficient output force capacity; (2) using attention-based BCI control to increase patients’ participation in exoskeleton-assisted hand rehabilitation; and (3) determining the threshold of attention value for our attention-based hand rehabilitation robot control.

Exoskeleton Design

Design Requirements

The target users are stroke survivors during flaccid paralysis period who need continuous passive motion training of their hands. They should also be able to focus their attention on motion rehabilitation training for at least a short period of time. For the purpose of hand rehabilitation, an exoskeleton should have minimal ADL interference and have the ability to generate adequate forces to perform hand flexion and extension with a range of motion that is similar or slightly lower than the motion range of a natural finger.

To achieve minimal ADL interference, the device is to be confined to the back of the finger and the width of the device should not exceed the finger width. Here, the width and height constraints of the exoskeleton on the back of the finger are both 20 mm. Low weight of the rehabilitation systems is a key requirement to allow practical use by a wide stroke population (Nycz et al., 2016). Therefore, the target weight of the exoskeleton should be as light as possible to make the patient feel more comfortable to wear it. The typical weight of other hand exoskeletons is in the range of 0.7 kg–5 kg (CyberGlove Systems Inc., 2016Delph et al., 2013Polygerinos et al., 2015aRehab-Robotics Company Ltd., 2019). In this article, the target weight of the exoskeleton is less than 0.5 kg.

There are 15 joints in the human hand. The thumb joint consists of an interphalangeal joint (IPJ), a metacarpophalangeal joint (MPJ), and a carpometacarpal joint (CMJ). Each of the other four fingers has three joints including a metacarpophalangeal joint (MCPJ), a proximal interphalangeal joint (PIPJ), and a distal interphalangeal joint (DIPJ). The hand exoskeleton must have three bending degrees of freedom (DOF) to exercise the three joints of the finger. For some rehabilitation applications, it is unnecessary for each of the MCPJ, PIPJ, and DIPJ of the human finger to have independent motion as long as the whole range of motion of the finger is covered. Tripod grasping requires the MPJ and IPJ of the thumb to bend around 51° and 27°; MCPJ, PIPJ, and DIPJ of the index finger to bend around 46°, 48°, and 12°; and for the middle finger to bend around 46°, 54°, and 12° (In et al., 2015). For the execution speed of rehabilitation exercises, physiotherapists suggest a lower speed than 20 s for a flexion/extension cycle of a finger joint (Borboni et al., 2016). It has to be stressed that hyperextension of all these joints should always be carefully avoided.

The exerted force to the finger should be able to enable continuous passive motion training. In addition, the output force should help the patient to generate grasping forces required to manipulate objects in ADL. Pinch forces required to complete functional tasks are typically below 20 N (Smaby et al., 2004). Polygerinos et al. (2015b) estimated each robot finger should exert a distal tip force of about 7.3 N to achieve a palmar grasp—namely four fingers against the palm of the hand—to pick up objects less than 1.5 kg. Existing devices can provide a maximum transmission output force between 7 N and 35 N (Kokubun et al., 2013In et al., 2015Polygerinos et al., 2015bBorboni et al., 2016Nycz et al., 2016).

The design should allow some customization to hand size and adaptability to different patient statuses and different stages of rehabilitation.

Rigid-Soft Combined Mechanism

Based on our established design requirements, a hand exoskeleton was designed and constructed (see Figure 1). In our design, each finger was driven by one actuator for finger extension and flexion, resulting in a highly compact device. A multi-segment mechanism with a spring layer was proposed. It has respectable adaptability, thus avoiding joint misalignment problems. A three-dimensional model of a single finger actuator is shown in Figure 1A. This finger actuator contained a linear motor, a steel strap, and a multi-segment mechanism. As shown in Figure 1B, the spring layer bended and slid because of the linear motion input provided by the linear actuator. The structure then became like a circular sector. When the structure was attached to a finger, it supported the finger flexion/extension motion. Five finger actuators were attached to a fabric glove via Velcro straps and five linear motors were attached to a rigid part which was fixed to the forearm by a Velcro strap. Each steel strap was attached to a motor by a small rigid 3D-printed part. It should be noted that the current structure is not applicable to thumb adduction/abduction.

Figure 1. Design of the hand exoskeleton: (A) CAD drawing of the index finger acuator; (B) bending motion generated by the proposed mutli-segment mechanism with a spring layer; (C) segment thicknesses (unit: mm); and (D) overview of the hand exoskeleton prototype.

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