From Harvard to Sant’Anna in Pisa, robotic arms for ALS patients
A project born in the laboratories of the prestigious University of Harvard: is a soft and wearable robot that supports arm movements in patients suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The idea belongs to the researcher Tommaso Proettinow researcher at the BioRobotics Institute of Sant’Anna High School of Pisa: the device resembles a vest and is equipped with pneumatic actuators positioned under the armpits which inflate like compressed air balloons, aiding the upward movement of the shoulder.
The results of the first tests on 10 patients were very encouraging, thanks to the robot they found better motor skills and less fatigue. The results are published on Science Translational Medicine.
How the super vest works
Three years of study and work for a new device that stands out from those currently available for its lightness. “The wearable jacket, made with elastic and partially reinforced materials, it weighs a few hundred grams, while the electronics, the batteries and the control part are integrated in a sort of belt that unloads its 3.6 kilograms of weight on the pelvis, making it easier to walk”. explains Proietti. Controlling the robot is easy and intuitive thanks to the presence of inertial sensors (similar to those of smartphones) which warn when the patient is trying to make a movement: within 30 seconds the system reprocesses the information and personalizes the control, inflating the actuators under the armpits in order to support and support the action taken .
During the trial, volunteers wore the robotic device to perform tasks such as drinking, grasping and moving objects. The results show a significant improvement in performance with less muscle effort (measured by electromyography). “If the person starts to lift their arm, the balloons inflate and allow them to reach even higher, improving range of motion by an average of 30%. In our tests, a patient who only had 40 degrees of arm elevation managed to even reach 80-90 degrees,” Proietti points out.
At the moment there is only a university prototype, “but the hope – concludes the researcher – is that one may be born in the future to boot to develop the product and bring it to market”.