Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Boston University Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences have developed a soft, wearable robot that helps individuals with Parkinson’s walk without freezing, a common and debilitating symptom of the disease.
The newly developed exosuit is designed to be worn around the hips and thighs and provides mechanical assistance to the wearer’s gait. This gentle push to the hips as the leg swings helps the patient achieve a longer stride, effectively eliminating the freezing episodes while walking indoors. The participant in the study was able to walk faster and further with the aid of the garment.
The device emerged from a collaborative effort combining the expertise of engineers, rehabilitation scientists, physical therapists, biomechanists, and apparel designers. The team worked closely with a 73-year-old man with Parkinson’s disease who, despite surgical and pharmacological treatments, suffered from frequent and incapacitating freezing episodes. The suit uses cable-driven actuators and sensors, along with algorithms that estimate the phase of the gait to generate assistive forces in tandem with muscle movement.
The impact of the technology was immediate. Without any special training, the patient was able to walk without any freezing indoors and with only occasional episodes outdoors. The device also allowed for simultaneous walking and talking, a task that was previously very challenging for the patient. This innovation not only aids in mobility but also offers a deeper understanding of the mechanisms behind gait freezing, which remains poorly understood.
Conor Walsh, the Paul A. Maeder Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS and co-corresponding author of the study, expressed excitement about the instantaneous effects and consistent improvement in walking. This development is a positive step toward helping individuals with Parkinson’s disease regain not only their mobility but also their independence.