Every year, some 130,000 Americans die from a stroke — an average of one every four minutes — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though hundreds of thousands of others survive strokes, the lingering effects remain the leading cause of serious long-term disability in the United States, costing an estimated $34 billion each year in health care services, medication and missed work.
At Towson University, a group of experts have come together from different departments to help get stroke survivors back on track. The result of their collaboration is a smartphone app, Armstrokes, designed to help stroke survivors strengthen their bodies and improve coordination.
A stroke, also called a "brain attack," occurs when circulation is blocked to the brain, typically by a blood clot, and can result in a range of neurological problems including difficultly with thinking, speech and movement. Armstrokes, as app co-developer Sonia Lawson explained, targets movement.
Lawson, who teaches in Towson's Department of Occupational Therapy and Occupational Science, said the app works by taking advantage of neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to compensate for damage. By guiding users through customized exercise regimens and promoting the repetition of movement, the app can help survivors' brains relearn basic movements.
"If you've learned how to play a sport or maybe taken dancing lessons, that requires a lot of practice. You have to do it over and over again to get better at it. It's the same idea for stroke and neuroplasticity. If they can do it over and over again, then the brain remembers that movement, and undamaged parts of the brain can take over for damaged parts," Lawson said.
Armstrokes is still in the development phase, but even after just six weeks of participation in a pilot program, stroke survivors who used the app regularly began to show results. The researchers are recruiting more participants in the Baltimore area with the hopes of doing a deeper assessment of the app.
An important key to the app's success, the developers say, will be its accessibility.
"It's portable — they have a phone they can carry around with them all the time, and they can just do their exercises wherever," Lawson said. No other equipment is required.
But Armstrokes is more than just an app, explained Jinjuan Heidi Feng, Armstrokes co-developer and interim director of Towson's School of Emerging Technologies. Behind the scenes, Feng said, there's a server, a massive database and a website organizing all of the patient data. That means there's plenty of hands-on work for both computer science and occupational therapy students to do.
Previously, Feng's department had worked on developing apps to help young adults with autism learn skills to enable them to transition into more independent living situations. She began thinking about how her department's expertise could benefit people with other kinds of health challenges.
"It was a perfect match," Feng said. "Sonia has been working with stroke survivors for more than a decade, and we have the expertise of working with people with disabilities and the computer science expertise in mobile app development."
—Leah Soleil for Towson University