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From the Regional Editor: The New Era of Rehabilitation Engineering

Rehabilitation engineering refers to the development and application of techniques, devices, and protocols for restoring function following disability. Although in most cases the concept relates to motor functions (e.g., training after a stroke or the use of limb prosthetics), mental rehabilitation engineering is also an emerging area.

Technically, rehabilitation engineering has evolved from traditional mechanical assistive devices and training systems into applications for the disabled based on new physiological findings. For example, functional electrical stimulation and neuroimaging- based brain–machine interface (BMI) have found applications in restoring hand movement after palsy or amputation. The latest development of closed-loop BMI would enable the long-term, realtime control of artificial hand movement [1]. Closed-loop control has been among the frontiers in rehabilitation techniques, compared with conventional open-loop passive techniques. For instance, electroencephalogram/ electromyographybased prosthetic hands are already on the market, while recent proposals for somatosensory-feedback brain–computer interface could significantly improve the dexterity of prosthetics and the experience of subjects.

Recent advances in computer science and virtual reality (VR) techniques are also likely to reshape rehabilitation engineering. Through a combination of multimedia, spatial-location sensors such as accelerometers, sensory-feedback devices such as transcutaneous electrical stimulation, the wireless Internet, and wearable visual devices, subjects could vividly experience a local or remote environment.

Many major companies have already started to invest in this area. For example, the Hololens from Microsoft [2] demonstrates the potential in entertainment and computer games, and recently the Google-funded Magic Leap with its three-dimensional (3-D) VR glasses raised great expectations for how these devices might be used in medical surgery and rehabilitation.

Within a virtual 3-D environment, biomedical engineers may soon develop a more realistic rehabilitation training system. Already, neuroscientists and physiologists have proposed many rehabilitation training techniques based on visual feedback and mental imagery. VR techniques may be just one step further along this road—and perhaps a game changer for future rehabilitation engineering systems.

References

  1. B. J. Edelman, N. Johnson, A. Sohrabpour, S. Tong, N. Thakor, and B. He, “Systems neuroengineering: Understanding and interacting with the brain,” Eng., vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 292–308, Oct. 2015. doi: 10.15302/J-ENG-2015078
  2. Microsoft’s HoloLens Live Demonstration. (2015, Jan.). [Online].