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Science

Japan develops robot 'patients' for medical research and training

Sensor-studded humanoids help improve health care

TOKYO -- He is male, in his 60s, 165cm tall with a weight of 50kg. His only job is to help test various kinds of medical-care equipment, such as beds and lifts. He does this by assuming sitting and lying positions, which he does through the adjustment of the 22 movable joints that his creators endowed him with.

He is of course a robot -- one of a number being developed in Japan to be used as "patients" for health care research and training.

The team that created the robot, led by Yoshio Matsumoto at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), has also created a prototype model of the skeletal structure of the lower half of the body.

The humanoid robot developed by AIST researchers, above, has a precise model of the skeletal structure of the lower half of the body.

This robot can be used to gauge how patients might feel when a specific health care product is used on them. The data gathered from tests can be used to develop more patient-friendly equipment, such as beds with reduced risk of bedsores.

The robot's skeleton is made of metal, while its skin, fat and muscles are made of silicone with varying degrees of hardness. Sensors embedded in the robot measure pressure on various parts of the lower body.

Other researchers at Waseda University and Nagoya University have also developed robots festooned with sensors to measure the effects of medical procedures on human bodies.

A Waseda team led by mechanical engineering associate professor Hiroyuki Ishii worked with a Kyoto-based manufacturer of human body models for medical education, Kyoto Kagaku, to develop a robot baby for practicing the delicate procedures of ensuring breathing starts soon after birth.

If babies are not breathing when born, sensory stimulation such as stroking the legs is used to get them breathing. If this fails, a tube is inserted into the trachea.

Around 1-2% of newborns undergo this procedure, according to Ishii. He says advanced practice is "essential," as the procedure is mainly needed in urgent situations.

The robot baby developed by Waseda University researchers is designed for training in insertion of a tube into the windpipe of a newborn to stimulate breathing.

The robot infant is equipped with sensors to detect pressure, equipment insertion, and the baby's posture to determine whether it has been inserted appropriately. The team aims to complete the simulator for the training of interns by the end of 2018.

At Nagoya University, researchers led by professor Fumihito Arai have worked with the University of Tokyo's Makoto Aihara and Mamoru Mitsuishi to develop a human patient simulator with accurate eyeball models for eye-surgery training.

The simulated pupils and retinas are made of soft materials, so the actual eyeball movements can be precisely simulated, allowing for repeated practice of difficult surgery on the backs of the eyes.

This human patient simulator allows for eye-surgery training. (Photo courtesy of Nagoya University professor Fumihito Arai)

As excessive pressure on the eye during surgery can cause eyesight loss, sensors in the simulator warn when pressure approaches dangerous levels.

In surgery to treat blockage of small veins that carry blood away from the retina -- a common cause of vision loss -- part of the vitreous, or gel-like substance that helps maintain the eye's round shape, is removed. This surgery involves delicate and risky procedures requiring great skill. Currently, the only way for a doctor to acquire such skill is through the experience of actual surgery on human patients.

The simulator could change that. The group that has developed it hopes to improve it to the point where it will be an effective training tool for practical use within two years.

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