Balloon actuators attached to the wearable move the person’s arm smoothly and naturally.

Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers have developed a soft wearable robotic device capable of significantly assisting upper arm and shoulder movement in people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition that damages cells in the brain and spinal cord necessary for movement. According to Conor Walsh, senior author on Science Translational Medicine paper reporting the team’s work, “This study gives us hope that soft robotic wearable technology might help us develop new devices capable of restoring functional limb abilities in people with ALS and other diseases that rob patients of their mobility.” The soft, fabric-based prototype is powered cordlessly by a battery and consists of a shirt with inflatable, balloon-like actuators under the armpit. A pressurized balloon helps the wearer combat gravity to move their upper arm and shoulder.

The team developed a sensor system to detect residual movement of the arm and calibrate the appropriate pressurization of the balloon actuator to move the person’s arm smoothly and naturally. The researchers recruited ten people living with ALS to evaluate how well the device might extend or restore their movement and quality of life. After a 30-second calibration process to detect each wearer’s unique level of mobility and strength, the soft robotic wearable improved study participants’ range of motion, reduced muscle fatigue, and increased performance of tasks like holding or reaching for objects. It took participants less than 15 minutes to learn how to use the device.

The soft wearable is light on the body and feels like clothing to the wearer. The team sees wider applications of the technology including for those with spinal cord injuries or muscular dystrophy. However, the current prototype developed for ALS was only capable of functioning on study participants who still had some residual movements in their shoulder area. The team is exploring potential versions of assistive wearables whose movements could be controlled by signals in the brain. The researchers are still in the research phase, several years away from introducing a commercial product.

Via The Impactlab