A soft robotic wearable that can significantly facilitate upper arm and shoulder movement in ALS patients has now been developed by a team of researchers.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, most commonly referred to as ALS, is a neurodegenerative disease that affects cells in the brain and spinal cord required for movement, affecting 30,000 people in the United States.
Senior author of the study, Conor Walsh, says that it “gives us hope that this soft robotic wearable technology may help us develop new devices capable of restoring limb function in people with ALS and other diseases that rob people of their mobility.”
This cordless, fabric based assistive prototype has a soft and comfortable design.
The first author of the paper, Tommaso Proietti, explains that “This technology is quite simple in its essence. It is basically a shirt with some inflatable, balloon like actuators under the armpit. The pressurized balloon helps the patient combat gravity to move their upper arm and shoulder.”
The group created a sensor system that recognizes residual arm movement and then adjusts the proper balloon actuator pressurization to help patients with ALS move their arms smoothly and naturally.
To test how well the device would improve or extend their movement and quality of life, the researchers gathered 10 patients.
What they learned was that the soft robotic wearable improved their range of motion, decreased muscle fatigue, and also improved performance of tasks such as holding and reaching for objects after a 30 second calibration meant to detect their movement range.
Amazingly enough, the participants were taught how to use the device in less than 15 minutes!
Proietti shared that “These systems are also really safe, intrinsically, because they are made of fabric and inflatable balloons. As opposed to traditional robots, when a soft robot fails it just means the balloons simply do not inflate anymore. But the wearer is never at risk of injury from the robot.”
In addition to all of these amazing benefits, the wearable is also light and soft on the body, being meant to feel just like clothing.
The group also envisions broader uses for the technology, such as for people with spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy, or stroke victims.
Co-author of the study, Sabrina Paganoni, states that “As we work to develop new disease modifying treatments that will prolong life expectancy, it’s imperative to also develop tools that can improve patients’ independence with everyday activities.”
The prototype currently in development could only be used on subjects who still had some residual shoulder movement.
However, ALS normally advances quickly within 2 to 5 years, leaving patients immobile and eventually unable to even talk or eat.
That being said, the team is currently investigating potential designs of assistive wearables whose movements could be regulated by brain signals.
They believe that such a device could one day help patients who have lost all muscle function move freely again, as well.