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How robotic exoskeletons can help paraplegic patients heal from injuries

Gordon Cheng, Professor for Cognitive Systems, wants to dig deeper in understanding how the brain works.
Gordon Cheng, Professor for Cognitive Systems, wants to dig deeper in understanding how the brain works. Astrid Eckert / TUM

When a team of neuroscientists fitted paraplegic patients with exoskeletons, they hoped the patients could use the robotic assistance to walk. They found something even more remarkable: Using the exoskeleton helped their healing, with patients regaining some control over their legs.

But even several years later, none of these patients is walking unaided yet. The team, lead by Gordon Cheng from the Technical University of Munich (TUM), wants to find new ways to use robotics to help in rehabilitation. In a new paper in Science Robotics, Cheng and his colleagues consider what the next steps are in the integration of neuroscience and robotics.

One area of interest is to improve the hardware used for exoskeletons, to make it more comfortable and familiar for the users. “The exoskeleton that we were using for our research so far is actually just a big chunk of metal and thus rather cumbersome for the wearer,” Cheng said in an interview.

“I want to develop a ‘soft’ exoskeleton — something that you can just wear like a piece of clothing that can both sense the user’s movement intentions and provide instantaneous feedback. Integrating this with recent advances in brain-machine interfaces that allow real-time measurement of brain responses enables the seamless adaptation of such exoskeletons to the needs of individual users.”

The idea behind this approach is to create a machine that can be used more naturally as an extension of the body, so actions can be performed without conscious thought about the use of the machine. Cheng gives the example of driving a car, when you control the vehicle without thinking about the way that your hands move on the wheel or your feet move on the pedals.

Researchers still aren’t sure exactly how this kind of adaptation to a machine works, but Cheng says he theorizes that the brain adapts to treat the car as if it is a part of the body. If something similar could be achieved with exoskeletons, it could help people move with them more freely.

As well as making machines more usable for humans, researchers are also looking at making robots that behave in a more human way. Developing robots that can mimic human features, such as robots that use artificial muscles, can help researchers model the relationship between brain and body more accurately. This could help to develop better brain-machine interfaces in the future.

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