Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a devastating neurodegenerative condition that affects approximately 30,000 Americans. It damages nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, leading to a progressive loss of muscle control, paralysis, and eventually death. While there is no cure for ALS, researchers continue exploring innovative ways to improve the quality of life of patients with this condition.
In a recent study, a team of researchers from Harvard John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) has developed a soft robotic wearable that can significantly assist people with ALS in moving their upper arm and shoulder. This breakthrough technology offers hope for people with ALS and other mobility-impairing conditions, as it has the potential to restore function and improve their independence with daily activities.
A groundbreaking study that has been published in Longevity Technology has been conducted by a team of researchers from Harvard John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) on the development of a soft robotic wearable that can significantly assist people with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a neurodegenerative condition that damages nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, affecting approximately 30,000 Americans.
The assistive prototype is fabric-based, cordless, and powered by a battery. It features an inflatable, balloon-like actuator under the armpit that helps wearers combat gravity and move their upper arm and shoulder. A sensor system was also developed to assist patients with ALS in moving their arms naturally and smoothly by detecting residual arm movement.
The researchers recruited ten ALS patients to determine how well the device might prolong or restore people’s quality of life and activity. They found that the soft robotic wearable, after a 30-second calibration procedure, improved participants’ range of motion, reduced muscle fatigue, and enhanced task performance, such as holding or reaching for objects. Participants learned how to use the device in less than 15 minutes.
The team hopes this technology will begin enhancing people’s lives soon, but they caution that they are still in the development phase, several years away from commercialization. Additionally, ALS prototypes could only function on study participants with some residual shoulder movements. ALS typically progresses quickly within two to five years, leaving patients unable to move and eventually unable to speak or swallow.
However, the researchers are exploring possible versions of assistive wearables controlled by brain signals in cooperation with MGH neurologist Leigh Hochberg, principal investigator of the BrainGate Neural Interface System. One day, they hope, such a device might aid patients with no longer active muscles.
The team is also optimistic about the broader applications of the technology, especially for those with spinal cord injuries or muscular dystrophy. Aa per co-author Sabrina Paganoni, a physician-scientist at MGH’s Healey & AMG Center for ALS and Harvard Medical School associate professor, developing new disease-modifying treatments that will extend life expectancy must be accompanied by the development of tools that will improve patients’ independence with daily activities.
According to Tommaso Proietti, the first author and a former postdoctoral research fellow in Walsh’s lab, fabric and inflatable balloons make these systems very safe. Unlike rigid robots, soft robots stop inflating when they fail and do not pose any danger to the wearer. “The feedback from ALS study participants was inspirational, moving, and motivating, ” says Proietti.
Seeing people’s eyes light up while performing tasks and experiencing movement with the wearable and hearing them express overjoy at being able to move their arms as they had not been able to for years, was a bittersweet feeling. Proietti also thanked people living with ALS who took part in this study, saying that advancements can be made only through their selfless efforts and new technology developed.