Improving Parkinson’s Patients’ Mobility: A Look at Harvard’s Robotic Exoskeleton and its Fall-Reducing Abilities

If you follow the world of robotic exoskeletons with any frequency, you’re no doubt aware of the two primary categories. The latter category is often the domain of soft robotic exoskeletons – those with fabric parts designed to be more of a day-to-day assistive accessory. In the case of people with Parkinson’s disease, “freezing” is a frequent issue that impacts the ability to walk, while increasing the likelihood of falls. New research from a joint team from Harvard and Boston University, published in Nature Medicine, demonstrates how soft robotic exoskeletons can address the issue. Without any special training, the patient was able to walk without any freezing indoors and with only occasional episodes outdoors.

Rewriting the World of Robotic Exoskeletons

If you have a keen interest in the world of robotic exoskeletons, then you are likely familiar with its primary categories. One is tailored for workers engaged in physically demanding or repetitive tasks, like lifting and transporting packages. The other is geared towards individuals with mobility impairments, providing them with assistance and support.

Within the latter category, soft robotic exoskeletons have become increasingly popular. These innovative devices incorporate fabric elements and serve as a daily assistive accessory for those in need. Moreover, they are now being designed to address specific mobility issues that hinder an individual’s ability to move around comfortably. After all, not all mobility impairments are the same.

Consider Parkinson’s disease, for instance, a condition that causes “freezing” – a common symptom that significantly affects one’s ability to walk and increases the risk of falling. People with Parkinson’s experience difficulty in maintaining their balance while walking, leading to shortened steps and ultimately coming to a complete stop.

Various approaches have been made to tackle this problem, ranging from medication to physical therapy and even surgery. However, these solutions have their limitations and are not always effective.

Fortunately, recent research conducted by a collaborative team from Harvard and Boston University has revealed how soft robotic exoskeletons can help alleviate this issue. Published in Nature Medicine, the study highlights the effectiveness of these wearable technologies in addressing freezing in individuals with Parkinson’s disease.

The exoskeleton features sensors that detect movement and implement advanced algorithms to determine the walker’s gait. When necessary, cable-driven actuators provide assistance mid-stride, aiding the individual in walking smoothly and comfortably.

“Our research shows that even a small amount of mechanical assistance from our soft robotic apparel can have immediate and consistent positive effects on walking for individuals with mobility impairments,” says Conor Walsh, a professor at Harvard University.

The researchers worked with a 73-year-old man with Parkinson’s who experiences freezing more than ten times a day. Over the course of six months, the team was able to eliminate freezing while walking indoors, allowing the individual to walk further and faster than before.

Harvard further notes, “The effect was immediate. With no special training, the patient could walk indoors without freezing and only experienced occasional episodes while walking outdoors. He was even able to walk and talk without any freezing, which is a rare accomplishment without the assistance of an exoskeleton.”

The Biodesign Lab, the same group that designed an exosuit for stroke patients, has also developed this groundbreaking technology. Their previous invention has since been licensed by a startup called ReWalk Robotics, paving the way for its incorporation into everyday life. If the promising early results of this new exoskeleton are any indication, it won’t be long before it too is commercially available.

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Max Chen

Max Chen is an AI expert and journalist with a focus on the ethical and societal implications of emerging technologies. He has a background in computer science and is known for his clear and concise writing on complex technical topics. He has also written extensively on the potential risks and benefits of AI, and is a frequent speaker on the subject at industry conferences and events.

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