Stroke victims and patients with spinal injuries often have to learn how to walk all over again. Their muscles may not be strong enough to let them move about, and the brain/body connection may have been disrupted so that normal walking behavior is not possible. A lot of researchers have been working on exoskeletons that can help support the patient’s body while also providing a power assist to aid them in walking.
One new product recently received FDA clearance for use in the U.S. as part of physical rehabilitation treatment. Cyberdyne, Inc. (no, not that Cyberyne) is a Japanese company that has created HAL (no, not that HAL). The product’s name stands for “Hybrid Assistive Limb,” and it takes a different approach from some other exoskeletons. The process starts by the patient thinking about walking. The brain sends signals to the body, even though the muscles may not be strong enough to respond. Sensors mounted on the surface of the skin can detect these motion signals, which are then transmitted to the exoskeleton’s controller. It analyzes the signals, and determines what type of motion the patient intends. It then sends commands to the power units to exert additional force to achieve the desired movement. The motion is then detected by the brain, and provides feedback as to the accuracy of the desired result. This means that the system also helps retrain the brain at the same time that it provides assistance.
In addition to rehab applications, the company sees applications for its technology ranging from assisting patients with physical impairments to boosting the strength of workers in industrial settings. We are rapidly approaching a time when exoskeletons may become commonplace solutions for a variety of challenges.