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Q&A: Professor Allison Okamura discusses robot-assisted surgery

Courtesy of Allison Okamura

Courtesy of Allison Okamura

Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Allison Okamura M.S. ’96 Ph.D. ’00 is the director of the Center for Design Research’s Collaborative Haptics and Robotics in Medicine (CHARM) Lab. As robot-assisted surgery continues to grow in popularity, The Daily sat down with Okamura to discuss her work and its implementation.


The Stanford Daily (TSD): Where did you get the idea to use robots in brain science?

Allison Okamura (AO): At Johns Hopkins University, I worked with patients with damage to the cerebellum, something [that is] notoriously difficult to treat. A neuroscientist asked me if we could use robotics as a tool to understand the patient population and their deficits better.

In my research lab now, we design minimally invasive robots to reduce patient trauma and quicken recovery time. We also aim to interact with patients with deficits or who need to be rehabilitated–using human gene interfaces such as prosthetics or robots that help people regain movement.


TSD: What is the science behind it?

AO: There are two sides–robotic science and biological science. The science of robotics is trying to understand how you optimize a robot design and its control system. With biological science in rehabilitation, you have to understand the neuroscience of the deficit–what brain circuits aren’t working correctly and how you can reconnect them through training.


TSD: How long has it taken to develop this technology?

AO: The field of rehabilitation robotics has been active for at least 25 years. Commercial products have existed for the last 15 years. Products like wearable exoskeletons are just starting to be commercial products. Wearable devices are very recent.


TSD: Has it been used on actual humans before?

AO: Yes, on hundreds of patients. There are a number of commercial products. Companies like Hocoma sell assistance robots, while others sell robots that apply forces to help with training, such as robots that patients hold onto with their arms. These products are being used in many rehabilitation centers and clinics.


TSD: How effective is robot therapy?

AO: Robot therapy is currently effective, although the outcomes of current commercial products are not very different from the outcomes of human therapists. We believe rehab robots have not done as much as they could have, given the capabilities of a robot, because we don’t completely understand the neuroscience behind these deficits.


TSD: How is this better than other therapies?

AO: Robots can quantitatively record objective data by measuring positions and forces, apply movements to patients that human therapists can’t–and always have power. However, it’s not that these robots are likely to replace human therapists or surgeons, but rather, they are great tools that human clinicians can use.


TSD: What are the challenges?

AO: When a patient has a stroke, he/she has potentially damaged multiple parts of the brain. Designing a rational therapy to help each individual patient is difficult. The more we understand the neuroscience behind it, the more we will be able to use robots to the best of their abilities to cater to specific cases. In my lab, we try to use the robots not only for rehab strategies, but also as neuroscience tools.


Contact Tiffany Lam at tlam28 ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.