The Netherlands: Wearable robots give new hope to paraplegics
Robotic devices are increasingly being used to assist patients with impaired motor functions, with one pioneering project from the Netherlands hoping to revolutionise the rehabilitation of patients through a novel adaptable exoskeleton.
The Symbitron project - started in the Netherlands in 2013 and involving an international project team from Switzerland, Italy, Iceland and the UK - has been working to restore partial movement in those with spinal cord injury (SCI).
It has done this by designing a unique wearable, assistive exoskeleton that helps to activate the neuromuscular system, which is believed to improve motor recovery. Inspired by how the body itself works, this safe, personalised man-machine interface is responsive to both the user and the environment.
“Our main aim was to enable patients with spinal cord injuries to walk without additional assistance, by working with their remaining motor functions,” said project coordinator Herman van der Kooij, from the University of Twente in The Netherlands.
To test the safety and functionality of their solution, the Symbitron consortium created a training environment and training protocols for patients and their doctors.
“Clinical tests showed that hardware and software could be adjusted to the specific characteristics of these subjects providing a proof of the feasibility of our unique approach," said Professor van der Kooij.
The results were promising, with all subjects who had been mobile before the trial having improved their walking speed and/or balance during training.
Of the completely immobile patients, two started walking again. In some cases, a rehabilitation effect was seen after training with the Symbitron devices, even when the subjects did not use the device.
Psychometric analysis also confirmed that patients were satisfied with the solution and results, and showed high motivation for further progress.
Professor van der Kooij says that, though clinical results are still preliminary, training with the Symbitron devices seems to improve walking in subjects who have some function left.
This suggests that the support offered by the Symbitron approach could extend beyond SCI subjects – and help, for example, in the rehabilitation of stroke survivors.
The Symbitron project is a part of the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies programme (FET) programme, which invests in transformative frontier research and innovation with a high potential impact on technology, to benefit the economy and society. It was funded by the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme.