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Wearable exoskeleton helps paraplegics walk

By Damir Beciri
6 Comments3 November 2012

vanderbilt-exoskeleton-brian-shaffeOver a year ago we reported about a smart lower-limb prosthetic developed by researchers at the Vanderbilt University, and they recently presented a powered exoskeleton that enables people with severe spinal cord injuries to perform tasks such as standing, walking, sitting and climbing stairs. Although these exoskeletons haven’t yet been approved for home use, their light weight, compact size and modular design make them a noteworthy challenger of currently existing competitors.

Led by Michael Goldfarb, the H. Fort Flowers Chair in Mechanical Engineering and professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Vanderbilt, the researchers designed an exoskeleton which operates in a way similar to Segways. It picks up cues such as leaning forward or back in order to move forward, stand up or sit down.

Vanderbilt design has a modular design and it is lighter and slimmer compared to its currently available competition, thus making it more suitable for every day use where it grants greater degree of independence as well as easier transport since it can be snapped apart and transported by wheelchair. Weighting about 12.25kg (27 lbs), the exoskeleton developed at Vanderbilt is nearly half the weight of other currently available models from the competition.

Aside previously mentioned advantages the exoskeleton offers robotic assistance which automatically adjusts for users who have some muscle control in their legs. This allows the users to use their leg muscles activity rather than leaning in order to control the exoskeleton.

It is the also the only currently available wearable robot that incorporates a proven rehabilitation technology called functional electrical stimulation (FES). FES is a method used for patients with incomplete paraplegia where it uses small electrical pulses to paralyzed muscles, causing them to flex and gain back the strength. FES can also be used for patients with complete paraplegics, where it is used to improve circulation, change bone density and reduce muscle atrophy.

“These new devices for walking are here and they are getting better and better. However, a person has to be physically fit to use them”, said Clare Hartigan, a physical therapist at Shepherd Center where Vanderbilt devices are tested. “They have to keep their weight below 220 pounds [100kg], develop adequate upper body strength to use a walker or forearm crutches and maintain flexibility in their shoulder, hip, knee and ankle joints … which is not that easy when a person has relied on a wheelchair for months or even years.”

Persons suitable for use of this exoskeleton strap it in tightly around the torso. Rigid supports strapped to the legs and extend from the hip to the knee and from the knee to the foot are connected with hip and knee joints which are driven by computer-controlled electric motors powered by advanced batteries. In order to maintain balance, patients use the Vanderbilt exoskeleton with walkers or forearm crutches.

The university has several patents pending on the design and Parker Hannifin Corporation has signed an exclusive licensing agreement to develop a commercial version of the device, which should be introduced in 2014. Parker Hannifin hasn’t set a price for the Vanderbilt exoskeleton, but Goldfarb is hopeful that its minimalist design combined with Parker Hannifin’s manufacturing capability will translate into a product which will be affordable by individuals.

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6 Comments — Leave your response!

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    The concept that disabled people need to be just like normal people is so pervasive in our society it’s depressing. Recently I saw a video of a disabled person who goes around giving talks about how he can do anything he sets his mind to, doesn’t let his disabilities stop him, blah blah blah, we’ve all heard it before.

    Someone commented that disabled people do not exist to make able-bodied people feel better about their lives as they try to live a life that other people would call normal. This comment got a storm of “How dare you!” type responses. Maybe what he says helps other people realize that their little problems are unimportant!

    As a disabled person, I’m sure you’ve had some able-bodied person explain to you that they saw a story about someone just like you who (fill in the blank was able to walk again, went on a thousand mile solo hike, sailed around the universe, whatever), and here’s the kicker “They Did It, So Can You”.

    As a fat disabled person I’m constantly being told that if I just lost weight, I’d be able to walk again. If I’m in an especially bad mood, I will explain to these nitwits how they should return their medical degree to the Cracker Jack Box it clearly came from.

    So once you have the “The Exception Did It, So Can You” mindset you get people wondering why extra things have to be done to help the disabled. Recently I read complaints about pools being shut down because they did not have accessible access, which was required by a particular date. The most common comment went along the lines of, Well it’s just wasted expense, there’s so few disabled people that all that money is going for just a very few people, just like our tax dollars get wasted on curb cuts and cross-walk signs that beep.

    I totter back and forth between rage at the selfishness and weeping for humanity that seems to have lost any compassion it might have once had – unless it’s compassion for someone who is disabled who shows how able-bodied they can be.

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    noushad khan

    my lower limbs are paralysed,and could step ahead with support of walker.will the new devices fit me?may i have more on it?

  • Avatar
    Damir Beciri

    You could try contacting Michael Goldfarb or Shepherd Center (links in main text above) for more information about the availability of exoskeleton trials, but you’d have to wait for 2014 for a commercial version.

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    Do they work on people with muscular diseases like muscular dystrophy?

  • Avatar
    Damir Beciri

    I guess it depends on the type and progress. As long as dystrophy is related to legs only, it could be used as its developers intended.

    On the other hand, use of a different system with development of better algorithms and exoskeletons (popularly called power suits) would prove more suitable for individuals with muscular dystrophy.

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    My sister was injured in a car accedent three months ago. She has limited functionality below the L1 vertebra. It is to early to tell how much function she will be able to regain but a system like this would go a very long way to help her. She is 18 and is in rehab. My mom sat on a chair in our kitchen and tried to see how it would be like for her to try and complete some simple tasks like the dishes or cook some breakfast… When talking about regaining functionality these are the every day kinds of things that people take for granted. Like being able to reach a pan at the back of a kitchen cupboard.

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