Step forward: Harvard engineers design robotic suit to conquer Parkinson's freeze

Innovative wearable device helps patients walk freely, offering hope for millions

Robotic device improves walking for man with Parkinson’s disease

Robotic device improves walking for man with Parkinson’s disease
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Researchers have developed a robotic suit that has shown effectiveness in helping people with Parkinson’s disease to move around more freely.

The innovation, developed at Harvard and Boston universities, takes aim at “freezing”, a common and highly debilitating symptom of the disorder, which sufferers say makes it feel like their feet are glued to the ground.

The wearable device, which is worn around the hips and thighs, gently pushes the wearer forward as the leg swings, resulting in a longer stride.

This assistance has completely eliminated freezing in trials conducted indoors, substantially enhancing mobility.

The challenge of freezing

Parkinson’s disease affects more than nine million people globally, with freezing being one of its most challenging symptoms.

This condition leads to people suddenly being unable to move their feet, often in mid-stride, resulting in staccato, stuttering steps that progressively shorten until movement ceases.

Traditional treatments, including pharmacological, surgical or behavioural therapies, have had limited effectiveness.

“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,” said Conor Walsh of Harvard University, who led the study.

The team of researchers from Harvard's John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (Seas) and Boston University's Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences worked for six months with a 73-year-old Parkinson’s patient who, despite undergoing surgery and pharmacological treatments, experienced frequent and debilitating freezing episodes.

“Leveraging soft wearable robots to prevent freezing of gait in patients with Parkinson’s required a collaboration between engineers, rehabilitation scientists, physical therapists, biomechanists and apparel designers,” Dr Walsh said.

The device, employing cable-driven actuators and sensors, operates in harmony with the user's movements.

Algorithms analyse motion data to provide synchronised assistive forces, effectively reducing freezing episodes without requiring special training.

Results and testimonials

The impact was immediate and significant, according to the research published in Nature Medicine.

The participant could walk and talk simultaneously without freezing, a notable improvement given his condition.

“The suit helps me take longer steps … 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,” he said.

The device offers not only a practical solution but also a means to better comprehend the mechanisms behind gait freezing, which remains poorly understood.

Terry Ellis, professor and physical therapy department chair at Boston University, said this “bottom-up” approach to treating gait freezing could help scientists understand how it could influence central gait control processes.

Updated: January 06, 2024, 4:47 AM