These tiny sensors could revolutionize stroke recovery

CHICAGO — New sensors developed by a Northwestern University researcher could revolutionize stroke recovery.

The streamlined devices eliminate the need for wires, electrodes and bulky equipment. Flexible sensors go on a patient's arms, legs and chest to measure muscle movement and function. WGN News visited the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab to see how they work.

"These are all flexible, wireless sensors that can be worn all day," Megan O'Brien, Ph.D., a research scientist at the lab, said.

"The therapy that's going on now: It's a bird's-eye view [because] these sensors are giving us a microscopic view of what's going on inside that person," she continued.

It's a huge step forward for patients and those who help them recover.

Dan Johnson had a stroke a year ago. Shirley Ryan researchers put him through the paces to demonstrate the new technology. As Johnson walks, a sensor on his leg delivers real-time data to a tablet, which O'Brien can use to see how well Johnson's quad muscle is firing. A bicep sensor measures movement on Johnson's affected arm.

The sensors are "measuring for a specific person how our different therapies and interventions are affecting the insides of their bodies — the muscles and the heart — and how can we improve and titrate to make them better," O'Brien said.

There's even a sweat sensor and one on the chest that tracks heart activity during exertion.

"It's going to give us much more data than we've ever had before," O'Brien said. "It’s going to tell us more about stroke and how each individual recovers from stroke.”

For speech language pathologist Edie Babbitt, Ph.D., the new technology is a game changer. Babbitt uses the sensors to get a better idea of how muscles around the vocal chords work. Software calculates how often a patient speaks.

“Before we would have to use a stopwatch and listen to a tape," Babbitt said, "And there is no way we could analyze data from a whole day of what that person is doing or saying or what their swallowing is like. We haven’t been able to access this kind of information before.”

O'Brien said the sensors could help medical personnel ensure gains made in a healthcare facility don't drop off once patients go home.

The sensors were developed by Northwestern University researcher John Rogers. Researchers at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab have tested the devices for several months.

The sensors are also being used in the NICU to allow parents to more easily hold their babies, and on those in the early stages of Parkinson's disease.