BIONIK Laboratories introduced their newer arm/hand robot to PAM Rehabilitation Hospital Wednesday.

Robots rewiring your brain may sound like something out of a sci-fi movie. But, at PAM Rehabilitation Hospital of Dover, robots are doing just that to help patients move parts of their body they thought they’d never see move again.

For his entire life, 65-year-old Walt Landon of Camden hasn’t been able to use his right hand due to cerebral palsy.

On Wednesday morning, he was opening and closing his fist with the help of a robot called the InMotion arm/hand robot from BIONIK Laboratories during a demonstration at the rehabilitation hospital. This newer robot allows patients to practice grasping and reaching, among other motions.

“I never thought he’d be using this hand for anything. It will open up a whole new world for him. If he can use this hand and learn to do more with it, it will surely give me some relief,” said his wife, Pam Landon.

Since late March, therapists at PAM in Dover have been using an earlier model, called the InMotion arm robot, which solely focuses on arm movements.

These robots have been studied in clinical research for more than 25 years and can help patients with a variety of neurological conditions, including stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and cerebral palsy. 

The robot takes the patient through different exercises, retraining their brain to do movements like grabbing and drinking from a cup. This process is what experts call neuroplasticity, explained BIONIK vice president of strategic accounts Michael Turk.

Sensors in the robot are analyzing motion 200 times per second, Turk said. Whenever the patient can’t complete a movement, the robot helps by moving the patient’s hand or arm.

Patients as young as four years old can use the robots, and older patients seem to especially like this therapy, said clinical specialist for BIONIK, Bridget Mathis. 

"They get on this, and they don't have any pain," she said.

Mathis and Turk agreed that the goal of the robot is not to replace the therapist.

“I, as a therapist, can do more in my therapy session with the robot,” Mathis said, who is also an occupational therapist.

Mathis said the robot frees her to focus more on the patient’s form and pain management. She can also work different muscle groups or apply electric stimulation while the robot does its work.

Without a robot in therapy sessions, she said it can be difficult to know when the patient is moving on their own, or when she is moving them. With the robot, she has objective data about the patient’s movements and progress.

Therapists at PAM were given a two-day training session for the robots, learning how to generate reports and document the patient’s progress.

Landon said the robot’s exercises reminded him of a video game.

“I’m competitive. When [the therapist] said ‘here’s your score,’ I want to beat the score,” he said. The robot assisted Landon in four out of 80 repetitions in the first round, but only once in the second round.

Mustering up that kind of motivation is often the hardest part of rehab, Mathis said.

But, for patients who have never seen their hand move, using the robot can be an emotional experience, she said.

“Just the visualization. It’s so empowering. It gives them hope,” Mathis said.

The director of rehabilitation at PAM, Giancarlo Levrio, explained that the robot works like any repetitive action, like practicing your golf swing. The more you do the same action, the better you get at it.

PAM stands for post-acute medical, which means the facility provides care for patients after they have been discharged from a hospital, usually for an average of 11 days, Levrio said.

When therapists can only see their patients for three hours a day, the robot helps them maximize that short amount of time, he said.

The robot can accomplish 600-1,000 repetitions in one 45-minute session, Turk said.

“It’s amazing. After an hour, they actually feel better,” he said.

The Dover rehab facility, which first started seeing patients Feb. 25, offers inpatient care with 34 beds and private rooms, as well as an outpatient clinic.

“Patients in outpatient love [the robot],” Levrio said, explaining that the robot can help at each level of care. 

PAM is currently the only facility in Delaware with an InMotion arm robot, Turk said. Over 100 robots can be found in hospitals and rehab centers across the U.S. for academic and clinical purposes, he said.

Ted Werner, chief executive officer of PAM Rehabilitation Hospital of Dover, said partnering with technology companies like BIONIK helps them get patients back into the community.

“Our staff work miracles, and it’s awesome to see that,” Werner said.