Researchers from Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Boston University’s Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences have joined forces to tackle gait freezing in individuals battling Parkinson’s disease. This collaborative project introduces a revolutionary soft, wearable robot, designed to be worn around the hips and thighs, offering a promising solution for those facing mobility challenges due to the condition.

The innovative robotic exosuit, as reported by Interesting Engineering, provides subtle yet significant nudges to the hips during leg swings, effectively extending strides and preventing sudden movement loss. This breakthrough aims to not only enhance mobility but also restore independence to individuals grappling with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease.

The impact of this development goes beyond mere mobility enhancement. It acts as a lifeline for those affected, offering hope for regaining lost movement and autonomy. In close collaboration with Terry Ellis, Professor and Chair of the Physical Therapy Department and Director of the Center for Neurorehabilitation at Boston University, the research team dedicated six months to working with a 73-year-old patient diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Despite previous surgical and pharmacological interventions, as reported by EurekAlert, this patient experienced severe and frequent freezing episodes, leading to falls and reliance on a scooter for outdoor mobility.

The team adopted a “bottom-up” approach, drawing from their expertise in assistive and rehabilitative robotic technologies, to address gait freezing. Their wearable device, utilizing cable-driven actuators and sensors, synchronizes with muscle movements and delivers assistive forces based on gait phase estimation algorithms derived from motion data.

The results, published in Nature Medicine, were groundbreaking. The patient could walk indoors without interruptions or freezing, with only occasional episodes occurring outdoors—an astonishing achievement considering the severity of their condition. Moreover, they could engage in conversation while walking, previously deemed improbable without the device’s assistance.

Jinsoo Kim, a former Ph.D. student at SEAS and co-lead author of the study, shared insights from the patient’s perspective, highlighting the positive impact of the suit on taking longer steps and preventing foot-dragging when inactive.

Beyond immediate relief, the device holds the potential to offer valuable insights into the mechanics of gait freezing, a phenomenon poorly understood in Parkinson’s disease. Ellis emphasized the broader applications, suggesting that restoring almost normal biomechanics could alter the peripheral dynamics of gait and influence central processing of gait control.

This breakthrough soft robotic exosuit not only promises to improve the lives of individuals with Parkinson’s disease but also opens doors to a deeper understanding of the condition and its broader applications in the field of rehabilitation robotics.

By Impact Lab