Stretchable Sensors Are Game Changers For Stroke Recovery

A game-changing wearable device may help transform stroke rehabilitation. Developed at Northwestern University, the stretchable sensors stick to a patient’s skin. The electronics move with the body and report health statistics, including sleep quality, muscle activity, and heart function.

"Stretchable electronics allow us to see what is going on inside patients' bodies at a level traditional wearables simply cannot achieve," says John A. Rogers, engineering professor at Northwestern University, and leader of the research. "The key is to make them as integrated as possible with the human body."

Sensors that adhere to a patient’s throat can monitor key areas affected by strokes, such as speech patterns and swallowing ability. Aphasia, a language disorder that affects communication abilities, can also be detected.

The sensor technology improves upon traditional methods used to measure speech function. One standard tactic involves using microphones, which cannot delineate between ambient noise and someone’s voice.

"Our sensors solve that problem by measuring vibrations of the vocal chords," says Rogers. "But they only work when worn directly on the throat, which is a very sensitive area of the skin. We developed novel materials for this sensor that bend and stretch with the body, minimizing discomfort to patients."

A research hospital in Chicago, known as the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, used electronic biosensors in concert with the Northwestern University stretchable throat sensors. The biosensors were also created in Rogers’ laboratory.

The sensors were placed on the legs, chest, and arms. Real-time data was streamed wirelessly to either a phone or computer, providing important details of the patient’s recovery process.

"One of the biggest problems we face with stroke patients is that their gains tend to drop off when they leave the hospital," says Arun Jayaraman, research scientist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and a wearable technology expert. "With the home monitoring enabled by these sensors, we can intervene at the right time, which could lead to better, faster recoveries for patients."

Recently, Rogers presented the research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Austin, Texas, earlier this month.

By Jennifer DeLaOsa, Associate Editor   02/20/18