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Reaching for new stroke treatments by understanding proprioception

a person using experimental proprioception equipment, which consists of a mirrored ledge at eye height
Image credit: L.A. Cicero
Aug 8 2018
Fellow, Research, Stanford

Most of us take it for granted that we can sense where our bodies and limbs are, even in the dark. Yet scientists don’t know exactly how that sense, called proprioception, works. Now, Stanford mechanical engineers are working to better understand proprioception — in the hope of one day helping people for whom sense has been impaired by stroke or other diseases.

To better grasp what proprioception is and why it’s so important, try this: pick an object near you, close your eyes and reach out to grab it. Chances are you’ll be a little bit off, maybe half an inch, but you won’t have too much trouble. But for many people who’ve survived a stroke, things are more difficult — if the stroke affected parts of the brain involved in sensing movement, they might struggle to reach for objects even with their eyes open.

Yet to understand those more serious deficits, mechanical engineering graduate student Sean Sketch says, he had to take a step back: Even in healthy people, “proprioception is still really poorly understood,” compared to other senses.

Sean Sketch is a 2015 Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow, affiliated with the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, Mechanical Engineering.