German researchers are testing a nerve-connected exoskeleton to improve mobility of paraplegics.
The suit, based on the HAL robot suit developed in Japan in 2011, is fitted with advanced sensors attached to the patient’s skin, capable of picking up neural signals from the underlying muscles. Based on the received signal, the exoskeleton can initiate a motion response in parts of the body, which the paraplegic, due to the nature of his or her injury, can no longer use.
“This is how we wish to activate and foster the residual function of the muscles and, ultimately, to help the patients attain better activity levels,” said Professor Thomas Schildhauer, Medical Director at the University Hospital Bergmannsheil.
The project, coordinated by the Centre for Neurorobotic Movement Training (ZNB) in Bochum, Germany, aims to give paraplegics more independence and better ability to deal with everyday tasks.
With the help of the robotic suit, the patient can again move his or her knees and hip joints. Patients taking part in the programme are currently undertaking a three-month training course to see how much supervision and practice will be necessary to achieve satisfying results.
“Our patients attain activity levels which improve their ability to navigate around their everyday life and their surroundings. Thus, they continue to train their movement routine every day,” explains Professor Schildhauer.
A patient who had been permanently confined to a wheelchair, for example, will be able to walk short distances with the aid of a walking frame after a three-month training period.
In Japan, the suits have been previously tested in geriatric rehab centres. The German team hopes it could eventually become a standard therapy instrument in treating paraplegic patients.