Foundational study shows soft suit exoskeleton improves walking for stroke survivors

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A new study published in the Journal of Science Translational Medicine finds that use of a soft suit exoskeleton system facilitates normal walking ability for ambulatory patients following a stroke. The paper, which is authored by researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and Boston University, is a seminal study, providing key findings that will propel additional research of how to improve mobility for patients following a stroke. 

The prototype utilised in the study is a soft suit exoskeleton created by the Wyss Institute that is now moving towards commercialisation by ReWalk Robotics. The study included nine participants, and examined the immediate improvements in walking capability that could be obtained when wearing the Restore system. The study highlighted the potential for the technology to provide gait assistance and training during walking: “These improvements in paretic limb function contributed to a 20 +/- 4% reduction in forward propulsion interlimb asymmetry and a 10 +/- 3% reduction in the energy cost of walking, which is equivalent to a 32+/- 9% reduction in the metabolic burden associated with post-stroke walking. Relatively low assistance (~12% of biological torques) delivered with a lightweight and nonrestrictive exosuit was sufficient to facilitate more normal walking in ambulatory individuals after stroke.”

“This foundational study shows that soft wearable robots can have significant positive impact on gait functions in patients post-stroke, and it is the result of a translational-focused multidisciplinary team of engineers, designers, biomechanists, physical therapists and most importantly, patients who volunteered for this study and gave valuable feedback that guided our research,” says Wyss Core Faculty member Conor Walsh who is also the John L Loeb Associate Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS and the Founder of the Harvard Biodesign Lab.

ReWalk is working with the Wyss Institute on the development of lightweight designs to complete clinical studies, pursue regulatory approvals and commercialise the systems on a global scale. The first commercial application will be for stroke survivors, followed by Multiple Sclerosis patients and then additional applications. There are an estimated three million stroke survivors with lower limb disability in the USA.

“Exoskeletons are now a commercially available, disruptive technology that have changed the lives of many individuals in the paraplegic community,” says ReWalk CEO Larry Jasinski. “The ongoing research at the Wyss Institute on soft exosuits adds a new dimension to exoskeletons that can potentially meet the needs of individuals that have had a stroke, as well as for those diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease or people who have limitations in walking. The Restore is a unique lightweight design that can assist and constantly adjust in real time to the user’s needs on every step they take. The depth of this fundamental science is a meaningful element in applying research to the everyday needs of this patient community.”

The Restore transmits power to key joints of the legs with cable technologies, powered with software and mechanics that are similar to the technologies used in the ReWalk exoskeleton system for individuals with spinal cord injury. The cables are connected to fabric-based designs that attach to the legs and foot, thus lending the name “soft suit.”

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