Brock using Canada’s first ‘wristbot’ in neuromechanics and ergonomics lab

An international partnership has led to Brock becoming the first Canadian institution to use an innovative ‘wristbot’ created abroad in its research.

The robot, built by the Robotics, Brain and Cognitive Sciences research team at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), now has a home in Brock’s developing neuromechanics and ergonomics lab, led by kinesiologist Michael Holmes.

Brock University’s newest Canada Research Chair, Holmes investigates how the brain and nervous system interact with the mechanics of hand, arm, shoulder and neck muscles during tasks performed in the workplace.

He heard about the wristbot and its potential use for his research, and made a trip to the lab in Genova, Italy, to learn more about it.

It was there he met Edwin Avila, an electronic engineer from Aguascalientes, Mexico, who is part of the IIT research team.

During the visit, Avila realized their respective research interests were closely related, although each with a different focus.

Edwin Avila using motion capture system

Edwin Avila, a visiting PhD candidate from the Italian Institute of Technology, wears reference markers for a motion capture system during his time in the neuromechanics and ergonomics lab at Brock.

In hopes of learning more about Holmes’ research, Avila opted to spend six months working alongside the Brock team to gain a different perspective on his own work.

“I told (Holmes) I could come to Brock to set-up and configure the wristbot, show researchers here how to use it, and start running a couple of experiments to study muscular strategies,” says Avila, who has been working at the University since early April and leaves to return to Italy at the end of September.

The wristbot, a robotic device resembling a joystick, allows Holmes’ team to examine how the forearm muscles control the hand, especially when encountering resistance and sudden, unexpected disturbances.

“It’s like when you’re holding a power tool and you have to control feedback from the tool in all directions to counteract the imbalance,” explains Holmes. “This requires muscular control and using such a device will allow us to better understand how fatigue, pain and/or injury is developed in the workplace and can influence performance.”

The research has applications for pilots who have to control joysticks, as well as surgeons, dentists and others who regularly hold tools for their jobs. The device can also be used for rehabilitation and basic science research questions around arm and shoulder biomechanics and motor control.

For example, the device can help people perform specific wrist movements. Over time, that assistance can be reduced as the individual regains proper function. Holmes says the wristbot offers “new and emerging research possibilities into ‘robotics for rehab,’ an exciting field that can improve the lives of individuals who may have lost hand function or suffer from neurological impairments to the upper extremity.”

The wristbot is one of several pieces of equipment Holmes purchased earlier this year with funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to create Brock’s Neuromechanics and Ergonomics Lab.

The experiments Holmes’ research team and Avila are conducting are part of Avila’s PhD work in Robotics, Brain and Cognitive Sciences at IIT, where he is in his third year.

Avila is researching how the brain creates a ‘pathway’ or a ‘map’ of how muscles need to move to compensate for sudden, unexpected forces that cause the hand to move unexpectedly.

Using the robotic device, volunteer research participants move their hand in a repetitive motion hundreds of times in a particular direction. Then, Avila and his colleagues introduce a force field that blocks the movement or makes it more challenging to complete.

“What we study are the mechanisms in the nervous system that identify if the participants have to push or not to push against the force field and how quickly they adapt to the new movement,” Avila says.

The team is using electromyography, a technique that measures muscle activity through non-invasive electrodes placed on the skin.  This technology provides insight into how hard muscles are working, what muscles are used to perform the movement and how fatigued the muscles get with repetition.   

Many occupations require workers to perform the same repetitive tasks for an entire shift, even an entire career. “The results from this work will shed light on how much time it takes for workers to adjust to changes in their tools and how fatigue impacts muscle control, all of which are factors that could potentially cause injury on the job,” explains Holmes.

Avila says he’s excited to be working with a multi-disciplinary team.

“I’m an engineer and I’m here in the kinesiology department,” he notes. “The openness and exchange of ideas is very interesting: you have different points of view, from different perspectives, depending on the background of each person.

“I think that is where the best solutions can come from.”

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