Dorothy Williams with robotic device
Stroke patient Dorothy Williams, 86, uses Dr. Steven Cramer's hand/wrist-assisting robotic device to improve function in her left hand, as occupational therapist Lucy Der-Yeghiaian monitors her progress. Michelle S. Kim / University Communications

Computer games and stem cell research may seem unrelated, but at the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, they fit together like hand and glove — a Music Glove, to be exact.

The device, used in stroke rehabilitation studies at the bustling UC Irvine research facility, features sensors attaching the glove to a computer and allows patients to play songs on Guitar Hero by tapping their fingers together.

Several cutting-edge rehab programs at the center similarly utilize robotics and computer software that someday could be combined with stem cell-based therapies to accelerate recovery from strokes and spinal cord injuries.

With support from the state’s stem cell research funding agency — the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine — neurologist Dr. Steven Cramer and biomedical engineer David Reinkensmeyer last year moved their existing rehab programs into the first-floor clinical lab space at Sue & Bill Gross Hall: A CIRM Institute and have since become integral to the stem cell research center’s mission.

Besides Music Glove, Reinkensmeyer and his collaborators have developed several other technologies to help restore limb movement after a stroke or spinal cord injury, while Cramer employs a robotic device with video games to improve hand and arm function in stroke patients.

“When the day comes that people can be treated with stem cell therapies, we believe these types of rehab programs will boost their effectiveness,” Cramer says. “The therapies will have maximum impact when paired with behavioral training that aids brain cell regeneration.”

On their own, the rehab programs are producing notable results. In one, Cramer is studying a hand/wrist-assisting robotic device that helps patients grasp and release common objects. It wraps around the hand and is coupled with software that directs people through a physical therapy program including video games. HWARD users initiate hand movement, and the robot monitors and supplements motor activity to meet therapeutic goals.

When Dorothy Williams entered the HWARD study earlier this year, she was recovering from a stroke that had severely weakened the left side of her body. She could grip nothing with her left hand.

Over three weeks of rehab sessions, Williams’ strength and range of motion grew steadily, and she excelled at the video games. “My scores broke a lot of records,” says the 86-year-old Westminster resident. “I’m really excited about that.”

Williams can now carry 8 pounds in her left hand and perform such functions as dressing, according to her son Michael. “Her therapists are thrilled by her improvement,” he says. “HWARD really helped restore her strength and coordination. It’s a godsend.”

“We’re showing that robotic therapy is beneficial,” says Cramer, adding that his team is building a laptop version of HWARD for home use. “But combined with stem cell treatments, the results could be amazing.”

UCI researchers are doing their part. The world’s first two clinical trials of stem cells for the repair of spinal cord injuries are based on therapies developed by Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center scientists.

“It’s a nice setup here in Gross Hall,” Cramer says. “We’re working on the human and behavioral sides of it, and — upstairs — they’re creating the stem cell candidates for treatments. Someday the two groups will collude, which will bring the best outcomes for patients.”