Sensor-packed smart belt could help Parkinson’s patients stay on their feet

Progressive neurodegenerative brain disorder Parkinson’s disease has a broad range of symptoms, including the fact that sufferers can be more prone to falls or loss of balance. Studies show that around 60 percent of people with Parkinson’s fall annually, and two-thirds of these people will experience multiple falls. The reasons for this can range from the effects of involuntary movements, aka dyskinesia, to changes in the way individuals walk, such as not swinging their arms when they move or taking steps that are too small.

Although there is not yet a cure for Parkinson’s disease (although there are a number of promising treatments starting to emerge), a new research project coming out of the University of Houston hopes to take on the specific problem of loss of balance. To do this, researchers at the university have developed a smartphone-based biofeedback rehabilitation wearable, called the Smarter Balance System. The Smarter Balance System takes the form of a special belt that is lined with vibrating actuators. These actuators provide customized rehab programs that map users’ movements in real time using a series of dots which appear on their smartphone displays.

The idea is to guide patients through exercises designed to improve their postural stability, thereby decreasing the number of falls, while increasing users’ confidence in carrying out everyday activities. The solution means that individuals will have access to the virtual expertise of a physical therapist at home, where they may previously have only had limited access to one during visits to a rehab clinic.

“The smartphone application records and creates a custom motion for their body tilt based on their individual limits of stability,” said Alberto Fung, a University of Houston graduate student and part of the Sensorimotor Augmentation & Rehabilitation Technology (SMART) Research Group.

Data collected by the system is then uploaded to an online server so that it can be analyzed by doctors and physical therapists, who can then adjust the regimen as required.

There is no word yet on when — or indeed, if — the Smarter Balance System is going to be made commercially available. However, it is yet another example of how wearable devices can help empower users in all sorts of ways, including medical applications.

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