Innovative robotic harness helps Parkinson’s patients battle mobility issues

Neurodegenerative disorder Parkinson’s disease can be debilitating for the growing number of people affected by it — 50,000 people are diagnosed each year in the United States alone. Although exciting breakthroughs are being made, there’s currently no cure for the disease. A team of researchers at Columbia University is working on alternative ways to help patients and has developed a smart robotic harness that can be used to “teach” Parkinson’s patients to improve their balance, thereby reducing the likelihood of falling.

“We have developed a cable-driven robot that consists of a lightweight belt worn by a participant on the pelvis to which several wires are attached,” Sunil Agrawal, professor of mechanical engineering and rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia Engineering, told Digital Trends. “Desired forces and moments can be applied at the pelvis in any direction, and at precise time points within the gait cycle. This technology, which we call Tethered Pelvic Assist Device (TPAD), does not add inertia and rigid links to the human body. In this study, we used the robot to apply unpredictable controlled waist-pull perturbations over short time duration, while subjects are walking. We found with such a training, subjects improved their balance post training.”

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In experiments, the technology was used to work out exactly how Parkinson’s disease affects a person’s balance and ability so they can react while walking. It was also demonstrated as being capable of improving patients’ gait stability in a single session, both while they were using it and in the short term afterwards.

“At the moment we envision this development as a training device in the laboratory,” Dario Martelli, a post-doctoral researcher at Columbia Engineering, told Digital Trends. In the future, it’s also possible to imagine how some of these insights could one day be baked into a lightweight assistive exoskeleton, worn during waking hours, which could help counter certain body motions, like shaking, associated with the disease.

“Future studies need to examine whether a multisession training will demonstrate lasting effects on walking balance, accompanied by improved functional levels, and a reduction in the number of falls during long-term follow-up assessments,” Martelli continued.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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