Robotic exosuit improves walking for person with Parkinson’s disease

Credit: Harvard SEAS

US researchers have designed a soft, wearable robotic device to help someone living with Parkinson’s disease walk without freezing.

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects over 8.5 million people globally. One of its symptoms is freezing, when individuals suddenly lose the ability to move.

When this happens mid-stride it can result in a series of stuttering steps that get shorter until the person stops moving all together. People with PD who experience these episodes have a greater risk of falling.

Researchers developed a robotic garment, worn around the hips and thighs that gently pushes the hips as the leg swings forward, that helps a patient with PD achieve longer strides when walking.

Mannequin wearing soft robot
The robotic garment (above), worn around the hips and thighs, gives a gentle push to the hips as the leg swings, helping the patient achieve a longer stride. Credit: Walsh Biodesign Lab/Harvard SEAS

The study’s single participant no longer experienced freezing while walking indoors and the device also allowed them to walk faster and further than without its help.

The research is published in Nature Medicine

“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,” says Conor Walsh, professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard in the US, who is co-corresponding author of the study. 

The mechanisms of gait freezing are poorly understood, so the device may also be used to gain a better understanding of it.

“Because we don’t really understand freezing, we don’t really know why this approach works so well,” says Professor Terry Ellis, director of the Center for Neurorehabilitation at Boston University in the US.

“But this work suggests the potential benefits of a ’bottom-up’ rather than ’top-down’ solution to treating gait freezing.

“We see that restoring almost-normal biomechanics alters the peripheral dynamics of gait and may influence the central processing of gait control.”

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