Assistive “anti-freeze” exoskeleton keeps Parkinson’s patients walking

People with Parkinson’s disease frequently develop a problem known as “gait freeze,” in which their legs simply stop stepping forward as they’re walking. A new powered exoskeleton, however, has proven to be very effective at keeping such individuals’ legs going.

Building upon a previous project, the experimental soft-bodied device was developed by scientists from Harvard and Boston universities.

It’s fastened around the user’s waist and upper thighs, where it utilizes integrated sensors to continuously monitor the current phase of their walking gait. The device uses this data to strategically apply a small amount of motorized assistance via cable-driven actuators, which work in tandem with the wearer’s own muscles to keep their legs swinging forward.

It has already been tested on a 73-year-old man with Parkinson’s disease, who had been suffering gait freeze more than 10 times a day despite previous surgical and pharmacologic treatments.

Almost as soon as he tried the exoskeleton, he was able to walk indoors without experiencing any freezing at all. He only had a few such incidents when walking outdoors, plus he was able to simultaneously walk and talk without freezing, which had previously been virtually impossible for him to do.

“We found that just a small amount of mechanical assistance from our soft robotic apparel delivered instantaneous effects and consistently improved walking across a range of conditions for the individual in our study,” said Harvard’s Prof. Conor Walsh, co-corresponding author of a paper on the research which was published in Nature Medicine.

A commercial model of the exoskeleton is now in the works. You can see the current experimental version in use, in the video below.

Potential buyers might also want to check out the existing NextStride system, which reduces gait freeze via a visual target which is laser-projected onto the ground. Dutch scientists previously utilized shoe-mounted lasers for the same effect.

Soft robotic device improves walking for individual with Parkinson’s disease

Source: Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

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