Mechanical engineer receives $1.6 million to improve walking recovery for stroke victims

AUSTIN, Texas—A $1.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will help University of Texas at Austin mechanical engineer Dr. Rick Neptune study how stroke patients walk, hopefully leading to more effective therapies that help patients recover faster and regain their pre-stroke quality of life.

“With our increasingly older population, stroke is a major disability we need to focus on,” says Neptune, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and co-principal investigator of the research.

Stroke is the leading cause of long-term disability among adults in the United States and is estimated to result in $30 billion in health care costs and lost productivity each year. Surviving patients often find it difficult to walk normally.

To walk, the brain sends neural signals to stimulate leg muscles. This causes the muscles to contract and produce force, which in turn moves the legs. In many stroke patients, force is produced at the wrong level or time, throwing off their coordination and making it difficult to walk. Neptune and his research group hope to identify which muscles are coordinated incorrectly in stroke patients, eventually paving the way for more focused and efficient rehabilitation therapies.

Working with Dr. Steve Kautz, biomedical engineer at the Veterans Administration (VA) Brain Rehabilitation Research Center and associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Florida, Neptune will study stroke patients who characteristically exhibit weakness on one side of their bodies. Walking data will be collected at the VA Rehabilitation Research Centers of Excellence and University of Florida Brooks Center for Rehabilitation Studies Human Motor Performance Laboratory, where researchers will also assess each patient’s physical post-stroke clinical status.

The study will pay special attention to the patients’ walking speeds, “which is a very important factor,” says Neptune, in predicting how well a patient will recover. By placing small electrodes on the stroke patients’ legs, they will attempt to discover how muscle coordination is disrupted when each patient walks, and then determine the functional consequences of their impaired muscle coordination.

Once the stroke patient data are gathered and sent to Neptune, he will create computer simulations of the stroke patients who recovered well, in the hopes of discovering what prominently affects their walking speed. He will then create simulations that emulate the walking patterns of stroke patients who did not recover well and compare their patterns.

“Our long-term goal is to find out which muscles are critical for successful recovery. Then we can focus rehabilitation programs on these key muscles to more quickly improve walking performance,” says Neptune.

For more information contact: Becky Rische, College of Engineering, 512-471-7272.