Today neurological diseases such as stroke represent one of the leading cause of long-term disability. Many research efforts have been focused on designing new and effective rehabilitation strategies. In particular, robotic treatment for upper limb stroke rehabilitation has received significant attention due to its ability to provide high-intensity and repetitive movement therapy with less effort than traditional methods. In addition, the development of non-invasive brain stimulation techniques such as transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) has also demonstrated the capability of modulating brain excitability thus increasing motor performance. The combination of these two methods is expected to enhance functional and motor recovery after stroke; to this purpose, the current trends in this research field are presented and discussed through an in-depth analysis of the state-of-the-art. The heterogeneity and the restricted number of collected studies make difficult to perform a systematic review. However, the literature analysis of the published data seems to demonstrate that the association of tDCS with robotic training has the same clinical gain derived from robotic therapy alone. Future studies should investigate combined approach tailored to the individual patient’s characteristics, critically evaluating the brain areas to be targeted and the induced functional changes.
Stroke is one of the leading factors of morbidity and mortality worldwide (Warlow et al., 2001).
In Italy, stroke annual incidence varies between 175/100.000 and 360/100.000 in men and between 130/100.000 and 273/100.000 in women (Sacco et al., 2011). Further, still in Italy, a total of 196.000 individuals are affected by stroke each year, 80% are new episodes and 20% are relapses (Gensini, 2005).
Activities of daily living (ADLs) and human quality of life strongly depend on upper limb functioning (Franceschini et al., 2010). Therefore, one of the goals of post-stroke upper limb rehabilitation is to recover arm and hand functions, and enable the patients to perform ADLs independently.
It is shown in the literature that intensive as well as task-specific training can be very effective in upper limb rehabilitation treatments after stroke (Feys et al., 2004; Lo et al., 2010; Klamroth-Marganska et al., 2014); this training should be repetitive, challenging and functional for the patients. To this purpose, robotics represents a key enabling technology for addressing these requirements for a well-stratified group of stroke patients (i.e., moderate-to-severe subjects). Clinical studies, varying in design and methods, have examined the effect of robotic devices on upper-limb and lower-limb rehabilitation in a clinical setting (Prange et al., 2006; Brewer et al., 2007; Mehrholz et al., 2015). Moreover, in a multicenter randomized controlled trial on moderate-to-severe chronic stroke patients, robotic therapy resulted superior to usual care and not inferior to intensive conventional rehabilitation treatment in terms of recovery of upper limb motor function (Lo et al., 2010). In addition, using robotic devices allows delivering new therapy constraints to maximize the required movement pattern (Kwakkel et al., 2007). Therefore, it is possible to control task learning phase more easily with robots than with traditional therapeutic techniques, since robots allows patients to perform guided movements on predefined pathways and avoid possible uncontrolled movements (Kwakkel et al., 2007).
Despite the interesting advancements in this area, the type of therapy leading to optimal results remains controversial and elusive and patients are often left with considerable disability (Bastani and Jaberzadeh, 2012).
Recently, the application of non-invasive neuro-modulation strategies to counteract inter-hemispheric imbalance has been acquiring a growing interest in post-stroke rehabilitation (Duque et al., 2005; Hummel and Cohen, 2006; Bolognini et al., 2009; Kandel et al., 2012). The adjunct of non-invasive interventions, such as the electrical brain stimulation or magnetic brain stimulation (Di Lazzaro et al., 2016), might be used to speed-up and maximize the potential benefit of rehabilitation treatments. In particular, transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) may play an important role in stroke recovery since its capability to modify cortical excitability and neural activity (Lefaucheur, 2016; Lefaucheur et al., 2017).
In fact, modulating the excitability of a targeted brain region non-invasively, can favor a normal balance in the interhemispheric interaction and, hence, facilitate the recovery of motor functions of the paretic limb (Kandel et al., 2012).
tDCS consists of applying low-intensity current (1–2 mA) between two or multiple small electrodes on the scalp (Dmochowski et al., 2011). Depending on the electrode polarity, an opposite polarization of brain tissues can be induced with consequent modification of the resting membrane potential. Anodal stimulation will induce depolarization and increased cortical excitability; cathodal stimulation will induce hyperpolarization and decreased cortical excitability (Nitsche and Paulus, 2000; Fregni et al., 2005).
The inter-hemispheric inhibitory competition model (Duque et al., 2005) implies that, to restore the interhemispheric balance altered after a stroke, one can either increase the excitability of the affected hemisphere with the anodal tDCS, or decrease the activity of the healthy hemisphere with cathodal tDCS (Hummel and Cohen, 2006).
The use of bilateral tDCS (applying simultaneously anodal electrode on the affected hemisphere and cathodal electrode on the unaffected hemisphere, Tazoe et al., 2014) could also be an effective strategy to produce interhemispheric rebalancing effects. Notwithstanding the promising achievements, the debate on tDCS efficacy in neurorehabilitation is still active and not entirely examined (Stagg and Johansen-Berg, 2013).
The application of tDCS might also have an impact on shoulder abduction (SABD) loading effects in individuals with moderate to severe chronic stroke; however, it is insufficient to make significant changes at higher SABD loads (Yao et al., 2015).
Furthermore, several neuromodulatory protocols have been applied together with robotic gait training to induce cortical plasticity and promote motor recovery after stroke. Motor excitability induced by paired associative stimulation, i.e., repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and tDCS has shown to be a potential neuromodulatory adjuvant of walking rehabilitation in patients with chronic stroke (Jayaram and Stinear, 2009) although there was no evidence regarding the efficacy of these protocols with respect to the others.
On the other hand, robot-assisted repetition with electromechanical gait trainer (Hesse et al., 1997; Hesse and Uhlenbrock, 2000) improved gait performance and maintained functional recovery at follow-up even during the chronic phase of stroke (Peurala et al., 2005; Dias et al., 2007). This could be likely due to the gait-like movement that allowed patients to practice a complete gait cycle, achieving better symmetric and physiological walking (Dias et al., 2007).
In this context, the adjunct of tDCS (delivered over the lower extremity motor cortex) to robotic locomotor exercises showed the capability to enhance the effectiveness of robotic gait training in chronic stroke patients (Danzl et al., 2013).
Conversely, while administering tDCS did not produce any reverse effects on chronic stroke patients, on the other hand it seemed to have no additional effect on robot-assisted gait training (Geroin et al., 2011). This could be due to the peculiar neural organization of locomotion, which involves both cortical (motor cortex) and spinal (central pattern generators) control (Dietz, 2002; Geroin et al., 2011).
Recently, another study has supported the hypothesis that anodal tDCS combined with cathodal transcutaneous spinal direct current stimulation (tsDCS) may be useful to improve the effects of robotic gait training in chronic stroke (Picelli et al., 2015).
Finally, combination of tDCS and robotic training has shown a promising strategy for improving arm, hand and lower extremity motor functions in persons with incomplete spinal cord injury (Raithatha et al., 2016; Yozbatiran et al., 2016).
All these approaches justify the growing interest of the scientific community in the evaluation of the effects of upper limb robot-aided motor training coupled with tDCS in stroke, relying on the adjunct of tDCS to further enhance primary effects of motor recovery (Triccas et al., 2016).
This paper intends to carry out an in-depth study of the literature regarding the effects of the combined use of tDCS and RT on motor and functional recovery in post stroke subjects. Moreover, the expected added value provided by this work is to complete the current knowledge in the neurorehabilitation field, by critically evaluating and comparing (when possible) the available results as well as discussing inconsistencies and possible issues. As a final goal, indications for the development of future and more specific rehabilitation protocols tailored to subject’s needs are provided.
The paper is structured as follows. In Section “Overview of the Main Studies on tDCS Coupled with Upper-Limb Robotic Treatment” an overview of clinical studies that analyze effects of tDCS combined with upper limb robotic therapy (RT) is reported.
Section “Discussion” presents a critical discussion of the presented studies aimed to assess the efficacy of this novel combined approach. Finally, Section “Conclusions and future perspectives” reports final considerations and future suggestions.
Overview of the Main Studies on tDCS Coupled with Upper-Limb Robotic Treatment
The study of the effects deriving from the coupled use of tDCS and RT represents a relatively young field of interest. In fact, the number of studies that have tried to investigate and prove the successful combination of these two techniques is limited.
A wide literature search updated to January 2017 has been conducted resorting to the main databases, such as Pubmed Central (PMC), Cochrane, Scopus, Google Scholar. The following keywords have been employed: tDCS AND stroke* OR ictus OR hemiplegia* AND robot* OR robotic therapy*, upper-limb rehabilitation, brain stimulation techniques, neurorehabilitation, rehabilitation robotics. Studies have been included only when focused on the novel therapeutic approach based on tDCS combined with robotic upper limb therapy.
The following inclusion criteria have been utilized:
1. Be a single session clinical trial (i.e., compare pre-treatment and post-treatment performance) or controlled trial (i.e., clinical trial with a control group, either randomized or not).
2. Involve stroke patients.
3. Concern movement therapy with a robotic device.
4. Include transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) as Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation Technique.
5. Focus on upper-limb motor control (and possibly functional abilities).
6. Use relevant motor control and functional ability outcome measures.
7. Be a full-length publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
To enable the most complete overview of the current literature, the search has not been limited by patient subgroups (i.e., acute, subacute, or chronic) or by language.
A flowchart of the search and inclusion process is shown in Figure 1. A total of 830 papers has been gathered by using the aforementioned search method. The abstracts matching the inclusion criteria have been selected. When appropriate, the full paper has been read. Therefore, from the initial 830 papers, 820 have been excluded since they did not meet the inclusion criteria. The remaining 10 papers have been carefully read. Eight studies are journal papers while 2 are conference papers.