University of Utah electrical engineering MD-Ph.D. student Michael Adkins has been awarded a $160,000 two-year fellowship from the National Institutes of Health intended to promote diversity in health-related research. This grant will allow Adkins to further his work developing an innovative medical device able to quantify the fine motor function of stroke patients.

Adkins joined electrical and computer engineering assistant professor Jacob George’s lab this past summer as part of his MD-Ph.D. program. This program involves three to four years of the Ph.D. program as well as four years of medical school.

A common tool used to assess gross motor function for stroke patients is called the ‘box-and-block’ test, where a patient is given a set of blocks and a barrier and their goal is to move as many blocks as they can from one side of the barrier to the other.

“This tool can be great for action assessment but has some current limitations,” says Adkins. “For example, some stroke patients struggle to regulate the force with which they grab in addition to or apart from the action of grabbing. This test doesn’t tell you what pressure the patient is actually using to grab an object, which can be a big issue when you are doing something as simple as, for instance, grabbing a water bottle.”

Adkins’ project, called the Electronic Grip Gauge (EGG) seeks to modify the box-and-blocks test by adding in pressure sensors, accelerometers, and a Hall Effect sensor to allow both physicians and patients to get an accurate assessment of how much grip force they are applying to an object.

“Ideally, this will allow for physicians and their patients to use the more accurate assessment capabilities to train their grip force,” says Adkins. “There is also a use-case for people with prostheses – similarly to stroke patients, people with prosthetics have a need to be able to regulate their grip force. Current technology is not fully sufficient to monitor and assess this measure.”

“As an MD-Ph.D., I’m really interested in bridging the gap between medicine and engineering,” says Adkins. “This project is a lot of translational bench-to-bedside research in that we are actually developing a real device and trying to get real feedback from patients and doctors.”

The EGG project currently has a working prototype that Adkins created custom written code for that allows the EGG to send data from its sensors to a computer via Bluetooth.

“I created and assembled a custom PCB plus written code for the EGG,” says Adkins. “I’m currently working on designing a housing for the EGG’s electronic components – the EGG shell.”

The prototype is planned to be completed by March 2023 to be entered into Bench2Bedside – a medical device design competition at the University of Utah.

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