For individuals with neurological impairments, functional electrical stimulation (FES) can help make real what was once only imagined: the restoration of movement to paralyzed arms and legs. Depending on the location and severity of the disability, FES can significantly improve quality of life by enabling the individual to regain capabilities such as walking, grasping objects, or maintaining bladder control.
FES devices send electrical impulses to electrodes—implanted in the body, worn on the skin, or operating through the skin—to produce and control movement. While a great deal is known about how electrical stimulation affects paralyzed nerves and muscles, until now a challenge has been the need to customize each device for the individual patient’s abilities and disabilities.
At Case Western Reserve University we developed the Universal External Control Unit (UECU), a flexible, configurable system technology platform for FES applications. With UECU, engineers in the clinic can change an FES controller and immediately see the results, enabling them to make improvements up to ten times faster than they could do before.
In developing the UECU, we had three primary goals. First, we wanted the UECU hardware and software to be modular and flexible enough to be used for a wide variety of FES applications. Second, the design environment had to enable researchers and rehabilitation engineers—not expert programmers—to develop rapid prototypes and quickly translate basic research into actual clinical systems. Third, the UECU had to work effectively in the laboratory, in the clinic, and in the patient’s home.
By Stephen Trier, Tina Vrabec, and Jeff Weisgarber, Cleveland FES Center and Case Western Reserve University Department of Biomedical Engineering
This article was published in The MathWorks News & Notes, 2008