NIH grant supports innovative stroke research


InertiaCube-BT-largerA grant from the National Institutes of Health is helping a UIndy physical therapy professor use the latest wireless technology to study how stroke patients walk, in an effort to develop more effective rehabilitation techniques. Dr. Stephanie Combs-Miller, associate professor in the Krannert School of Physical Therapy, is collaborating with Dr. Eric Dugan, a kinesiology professor and director at Boise State University’s Center for Orthopaedic and Biomechanics Research. The two professors have worked together for several years, examining similar issues from their distinct academic perspectives.

Measuring movement

“We come from two different worlds,” says Combs-Miller, who recently traveled to Idaho to train Dugan’s biomechanics graduate students on testing procedures for the study. “This is an ongoing piece of our work.” The research hinges on small electronic sensors called inertial measurement units, or IMUs, which are placed at various points on a patient’s body to measure movement in time and space, including joint angles and speed of motion. Bluetooth-enabled IMUs can transmit data directly into software for analysis and are convenient enough to be used in a clinical setting, eliminating the need for patients to be evaluated in a dedicated motion analysis laboratory with specialized video and computer equipment. “The best thing about these IMUs is that you don’t need a traditional lab,” Combs-Miller said. “The patients can walk all around the lab, and the technology will show us how they are moving.”

In a preliminary study last year at UIndy, funded by the University’s InQuery internal grant program, Combs-Miller and Dugan tested the IMUs and compared the results to traditional motion analysis techniques to make sure the devices were suitable for further research.“That was a crucial step,” she said, noting that the researchers plan to present those initial findings in July at the seventh World Congress on Biomechanics in Boston. The new grant of $50,000, which comes from the NIH’s Clinical and Translational Research-Infrastructure Network Pilot Grant Program, will allow the researchers to use IMUs with 40 human subjects assembled this spring and summer at Boise State, half of them with stroke-related impairments and the other half with no such symptoms.

Assessing ability to recover

The data gathered from the walking tests will show their levels of walking variability—the freedom of motion that allows us to react and adjust to changing conditions. By mapping the range of variability for stroke patients and comparing it to non-stroke subjects, the researchers hope to develop new methods to assess a patient’s ability to recover, and to determine which therapeutic techniques are likely to help restore normal ability and which are more likely to reinforce abnormal patterns of movement. “We need to rethink how we do our interventions” with stroke patients, Combs said.  “We just want to know, how are they different?”