Background: Robotic technologies to measure human behavior are emerging as a new approach to assess brain function. Recently, we developed a robot-based postural Load Task to assess corrective responses to mechanical disturbances to the arm and found impairments in many participants with stroke compared to a healthy cohort (Bourke et al, J NeuroEngineering Rehabil 12: 7, 2015). However, a striking feature was the large range and skewed distribution of healthy performance. This likely reflects the use of different strategies across the healthy control sample, making it difficult to identify impairments. Here, we developed an intuitive "Unload Task". We hypothesized this task would reduce healthy performance variability and improve the detection of impairment following stroke.
Methods: Performance on the Load and Unload Task in the KINARM exoskeleton robot was directly compared for healthy control (n = 107) and stroke (n = 31) participants. The goal was to keep a cursor representing the hand inside a virtual target and return "quickly and accurately" if the robot applied (or removed) an unexpected load to the arm (0.5-1.5 Nm). Several kinematic parameters quantified performance. Impairment was defined as performance outside the 95% of controls (corrected for age, sex and handedness). Task Scores were calculated using standardized parameter scores reflecting overall task performance.
Results: The distribution of healthy control performance was smaller and less skewed for the Unload Task compared to the Load Task. Fewer task outliers (outside 99.9 percentile for controls) were removed from the Unload Task (3.7%) compared to the Load Task (7.4%) when developing normative models of performance. Critically, more participants with stroke failed the Unload Task based on Task Score with their affected arm (68%) compared to the Load Task (23%). More impairments were found at the parameter level for the Unload (median = 52%) compared to Load Task (median = 29%).
Conclusions: The Unload Task provides an improved approach to assess fast corrective responses of the arm. We found that corrective responses are impaired in persons living with stroke, often equally in both arms. Impairments in generating rapid motor corrections may place individuals at greater risk of falls when they move and interact in the environment.
Keywords: Exoskeleton; Proprioception; Robotics; Stroke; Upper limb.