Newly developed exosuit can enhance walking ability of stroke patients

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Researchers from multiple institutions have collaborated and created a robotic exoskeleton that can help stroke patients improve their walking ability. An article published by the online publication Electronics360 announced this development. Electronics360 is powered by the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE) Global Spec.  

According to the article, the researchers were from Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and the Boston University College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College.  

Exoskeletons are mechanical devices one would usually wear as a suit. They are designed to assist and/or restore various bodily functions such as walking, jumping, and grabbing. These robotic machines have long since been the means of therapy for the walking impaired.    

The scientific journal on the researchers’ findings, published by IEEE in April this year, mentions that people who retain the ability to walk after neurological injuries, such as the majority of individuals post-stroke, may not need to use a rigid exoskeletal device to restore a normal walking behaviour.    

A soft robotic exosuit with garment-like functional textiles was invented as an alternative. The device was previously tested in 2017 on post-stroke participants, who walked on a treadmill. The design had the device tethered to an external battery and motor. It’s noted in the journal that while the results were promising, the advancement of the exosuit would require further testing.   

According to the journal, the newer version of the exosuit is untethered and no longer requires an external battery and motor. The device is worn on the user’s hips and weighs less than five kilograms. It works by targeting the limbs of stroke survivors during the walking cycle, on the partially paralyzed side of their body.   

The device delivers mechanical power to the ankles through a cable-based mechanism. It functions by working with plantar flexion, which is the ankle movement that pushes the foot down into the ground during the stance phase of the walking cycle, and dorsiflexion, where the foot is lifted up and the toes pulled toward shin during the swing phase. Lightweight and functional textiles anchor the cables and other parts of the exosuit to the body.  

The researchers conducted tests on 6 stroke survivors who suffered from partial paralysis on one side of the body (hemiparesis) and compared the walking speed resulting from not wearing the device, wearing the device without it being powered, and finally with the device powered and assisting the participants. The tests involved a short distance walk of 10 meters and a long-distance walk for 6 minutes.    

After the tests were conducted, it was observed that wearing the unpowered device did not affect the participants walking speed or distance compared to walking without it. However, when the device was powered, walking speed was increased by an average of 0.14 meters per second.    

The journal by IEEE showed that one individual improved walking speed by .28 meters per second and, on average, was also able to go 32 meters farther within the six minutes. Another participant was able to travel over 100 meters further.   

In the previous studies conducted by the researchers, the exoskeleton was used to improve treadmill and casual walking speed and reduce the energy cost for individuals with post-stroke hemiparesis. According to the journal, the newer study shows that a portable robotic exosuit can be used by everyday individuals who suffer from post-stroke hemiparesis to assist with ankle movement during casual walking, which results in faster walking speeds and farther walking distances. 

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