Soft robotic apparel to avert freezing of gait in Parkinson's disease

Freezing is one of the most common and debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that affects more than 9 million people worldwide. When individuals with Parkinson’s disease freeze, they suddenly lose the ability to move their feet, often mid-stride, resulting in a series of staccato stutter steps that get shorter until the person stops altogether. These episodes are one of the biggest contributors to falls among people living with Parkinson’s disease. 

Today, freezing is treated with a range of pharmacological, surgical or behavioral therapies, none of which are particularly effective. 

Researchers have used a soft, wearable robot to help a person living with Parkinson’s walk without freezing. The robotic garment, worn around the hips and thighs, gives a gentle push to the hips as the leg swings, helping the patient achieve a longer stride. 

The device completely eliminated the participant’s freezing while walking indoors, allowing them to walk faster and further than they could without the garment’s help. 

“We found that just a small amount of mechanical assistance from our soft robotic apparel delivered instantaneous effects and consistently improved walking across a range of conditions for the individual in our study,” said a co-corresponding author of the study. 

The research demonstrates the potential of soft robotics to treat this frustrating and potentially dangerous symptom of Parkinson’s disease and could allow people living with the disease to regain not only their mobility but their independence. 

The research is published in Nature Medicine

The team spent six months working with a 73-year-old man with Parkinson’s disease, who — despite using both surgical and pharmacologic treatments — endured substantial and incapacitating freezing episodes more than 10 times a day, causing him to fall frequently. These episodes prevented him from walking around his community and forced him to rely on a scooter to get around outside. 

In previous research, the team leveraged human-in-the-loop optimization to demonstrate that a soft, wearable device could be used to augment hip flexion and assist in swinging the leg forward to provide an efficient approach to reduce energy expenditure during walking in healthy individuals.  

Here, the researchers used the same approach but to address freezing. The wearable device uses cable-driven actuators and sensors worn around the waist and thighs. Using motion data collected by the sensors, algorithms estimate the phase of the gait and generate assistive forces in tandem with muscle movement.

The effect was instantaneous. Without any special training, the patient was able to walk without any freezing indoors and with only occasional episodes outdoors. He was also able to walk and talk without freezing, a rarity without the device. 

“Our team was really excited to see the impact of the technology on the participant’s walking,” said a co-lead author on the study. 

During the study visits, the participant told researchers: “The suit helps me take longer steps and when it is not active, I notice I drag my feet much more. It has really helped me, and I feel it is a positive step forward. It could help me to walk longer and maintain the quality of my life.” 

“Our study participants who volunteer their time are real partners,” said the co-senior author. “Because mobility is difficult, it was a real challenge for this individual to even come into the lab, but we benefited so much from his perspective and feedback.” 

The device could also be used to better understand the mechanisms of gait freezing, which is poorly understood.