Scientists say they have developed a “smart” robotic harness that might make it easier for people to learn to walk again after a stroke or spinal cord injury.
The harness, the researchers said, can be fine-tuned to individual patients to help them find a more natural walking pattern as they go through rehabilitation.
In early tests with 26 patients recovering from a spinal cord injury or stroke, the technology looked promising, according to a new report.
In general, the study found, the system allowed patients to move with a more natural gait, and better balance and coordination.
The researchers also saw immediate effects among five spinal cord injury patients. Right after an hour of training with the harness, the patients were able to move more easily using their usual assist devices, such as crutches or a walker.
Right now, rehab is often done the old-fashioned way, with patients supported by a therapist — or more than one — as they slowly learn to put one foot in front of the other.
When patients have more severe injuries, that’s an especially arduous process, said Dr. Preeti Raghavan, who directs motor recovery research at NYU Langone’s Rusk Rehabilitation in New York City.
“If you need two or three people to hold the patient up, it becomes very laborious to even take a step forward,” said Raghavan, who was not involved in the study.
So, she said, robotic harness systems have been developed to assist therapists. They essentially consist of a harness attached to the ceiling that supports the patient on a treadmill.
“The trouble is,” Raghavan said, “large clinical trials have found that [the systems] don’t improve patients’ outcomes any more than the low-tech approach with a therapist.”