A robot at the University of Calgary helps researchers study the effects that strokes have on patients' motor skills. (CBC)

With the help of a robot named KINARM, a Calgary doctor is studying the impact strokes have on people in the hope of speeding up their recovery times.

Dr. Sean Dukelow uses the $140,000-machine at the Foothills Medical Centre to measure the effects a stroke has on sensory and motor skills.

The Kinesiologic Instrument for Normal and Altered Reaching Movements — KINARM, for short — is hooked up to a virtual reality system.

The result: a fabricated environment where patients perform tasks, such as directing a hand to a target, or trying to copy a movement.

"What we find is that the robot is more sensitive in picking the deficits up in terms of movement, and we hope this will give us new insight into developing treatments," said Dr. Dukelow, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Calgary and a member of the school's Hotchkiss Brain Institute.


Researchers in Calgary are studying the effects that strokes have on patients' sensory and motor skills. (CBC)

The robot analyzes a patient's movement — adding support or resistance to their movements — and notices tiny differences when compared to normal responses.

These mental deficits — in terms of vision, movement and language processing — are usually measured subjectively, by observing the patient performing different tasks. 

And that process takes a long time, with stroke patients often needing repeated clinical testing. But Dukelow said the KINARM can test for the same deficits in a matter of minutes.

"The robot triggers your brain and makes you think quite a bit more about what you're doing," said study participant Sean Polischuk, a 21-year-old student who had a stroke in February.

Dukelow now plans to build on what KINARM has demonstrated and develop new, more individually tailored ways of helping patients recover from strokes and other brain injuries.

About 5,000 Albertans have a stroke every year, according to Alberta Health Services.