Over the years, we've seen all manner of innovations designed to assist the rehabilitation of stroke patients, from adapted Nintendo Wii games to anti-inflammatory drugs, and from stem cell treatments to robotic gloves. Though the idea of using wearable sensors to track patients' progress is well established (as this sensor suit we reported on in 2016 attests), a new innovation from Northwestern University shows how quickly this technology is progressing. The team of researchers has come up with a band-aid-like sensor, to be worn on the throat, which tracks all manner of vital information to send wirelessly to a doctor.

Much like the full-body suit from the University of Twente, the throat sensor is designed to address one of the biggest challenges in stroke rehabilitation: the difficulty in assessing a patient's progress once they return home.

"One of the biggest problems we face with stroke patients is that their gains tend to drop off when they leave the hospital," said Arun Jayaraman, a research scientist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, a Chicago research hospital which has helped to field test the wearable device. "With the home monitoring enabled by these sensors, we can intervene at the right time, which could lead to better, faster recoveries for patients."

The sensor resembles a large band-aid which is worn in pairs on either side of the throat, sticking directly to the skin. It's capable of measuring a variety of data, including heart activity, muscle movement, sleep quality, swallowing ability, and patterns of speech. The researchers say it can be worn even during "extreme exercise."

Speech and swallowing are of particular interest in stroke rehabilitation. It's thought that around a third of patients will experience communication difficulties after a stroke, while at least 40 percent will have some initial difficulty in swallowing, which can contribute to a risk of infection.

Speech and language therapy can help with both communication and swallowing problems, and so the ability to be able to track progress remotely could help significantly in stroke recovery – indeed, Jayaraman calls it a "game-changer" in this area. And by measuring vibrations in the vocal cords, the device eliminates the problem of ambient noise, which is an issue when using microphones to assess progress in speech rehabilitation. The sensor is designed to flex with the patient's throat to minimize discomfort.

"Talking with friends and family at home is a completely different dimension from what we do in therapy," says Leora Cherney, research scientist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. "Having a detailed understanding of patients' communication habits outside of the clinic helps us develop better strategies with our patients to improve their speaking skills and speed up their recovery process."

The idea is to use the sensor with others on the limbs and chest, all of which can be streamed wirelessly to the patient or to their doctor to give a broader overview of progress as well as highlighting particular areas of concern.

The team's research was presented by Professor John A. Rogers at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, held February 17 in Austin, Texas.

A video about the research can be seen below.

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