Researchers testing the device on a Parkinson's patient. HARVARD AND BOSTON UNIVERSITY.
Researchers testing the device on a Parkinson's patient. HARVARD AND BOSTON UNIVERSITY.

Researchers testing the device on a Parkinson's patient. HARVARD AND BOSTON UNIVERSITY.



By Imogen Howse

A wearable, robotic device that allows people with Parkinson’s to walk without “freezing” or stumbling has been developed. Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disorder, affects more than nine million people worldwide, with 153,000 in the UK.

 

Sufferers often find themselves “freezing” while walking – meaning they suddenly lose the ability to move their feet or shuffle as they walk, sometimes mid-stride.

 

This debilitating symptom is one of the biggest contributors to falls among people living with Parkinson’s disease and currently is only treated with a range of pharmacological, surgical, or behavioral therapies – none of which are particularly effective.

Researchers testing the device on a Parkinson’s patient. HARVARD AND BOSTON UNIVERSITY.

 

However, scientists from Harvard and Boston University have now developed a new, wearable device which they believe could stop ‘freezing’ altogether. It comes in the form of a robotic garment, worn around the hips and thighs, which gives a gentle push to the hips as the legs swing.

 

This helps the wearer achieve a longer stride, helping them walk faster and further than they usually would be able to.

In trials, use of the garment eliminated “freezing” in those affected by Parkinson’s.

 

Conor Walsh, a professor of engineering and applied sciences and co-corresponding author of the study, explained: “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.

 

“The research demonstrates the potential of soft robotics to treat this frustrating and potentially dangerous symptom of Parkinson’s disease and could allow people living with the disease to regain not only their mobility also their independence.”

The robotic garment worn around the hips and thighs, gives a gentle push to the hips as the leg swings, helping the patient achieve a longer stride. HARVARD AND BOSTON UNIVERSITY.

 

One participant in the study, a 73-year-old man, had long suffered with substantial and incapacitating freezing episodes. These occurred more than 10 times a day and caused him to fall frequently – preventing him from being able to walk around his community.

However, once he trialed the device, he was able to walk without any ‘freezing’ indoors and with only occasional episodes outdoors. He was also able to walk and talk without “freezing,” a rarity without the device.

The participant said: “The suit helps me take longer steps and when it is not active, I notice I drag my feet much more.

“It has really helped me, and I feel it is a positive step forward. It could help me to walk longer and maintain the quality of my life.”

The revolutionary device in use. HARVARD AND BOSTON UNIVERSITY.

 

Dr. Jinsoo Kim, co-lead author on the study, commented: “Our team was really excited to see the impact of the technology on the participant’s walking.” “Our study participants who volunteer their time are real partners,” said Professor Walsh.

 

“Because mobility is difficult, it was a real challenge for this individual to even come into the lab, but we benefited so much from his perspective and feedback.”

 

The research paper, published in the journal Nature Medicine, explains how the device feeds off the wearer’s movements in order to help them with their walking.

Boston University’s Professor Terry Ellis explained: “Cable-driven sensors are worn around the waist and thighs, and, using motion data collected by the sensors, algorithms then estimate the phase of the gait and generate assistance in tandem with the person’s muscle movement.”

 

Professor Ellis also pointed to the device’s potential to better understand the mechanics of “freezing,” which there is currently a lot of confusion around. “Because we don’t really understand freezing, we don’t really know why this approach works so well,” he said.

 

“But this work suggests the potential benefits of a ’bottom-up’ rather than ’top-down’ solution to treating gait freezing.

“We see that restoring almost-normal biomechanics alters the peripheral dynamics of gait and may influence the central processing of gait control.”

 

Produced in association with SWNS Talker