Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gherig’s disease, is a neurodegenerative condition that affects muscle strength and control, eventually leaving patients unable to even hold their own heads up. To improve their quality of life, researchers and engineers at Columbia University have created a robotic neck brace that serves as artificial neck muscles so patients can lift their heads and perform day to day activities we all take for granted.
There is currently no cure for ALS, and medicinal treatments only slow the condition’s degenerative effects which eventually lead to paralysis of the limbs and a dropped head with the patient’s chin resting on their chest leading to additional complications like impaired breathing, swallowing, and speech. Neck braces aren’t a new idea, but they need to be rigid to be adequately supportive, which means they can also quickly become uncomfortable to wear.
Looking almost like a robotic exoskeleton straight out of science fiction, a team of engineers and neurologists at Columbia University’s Robotics and Rehabilitation Laboratory have created an animated neck brace that does far more than just keep the wearer’s head upright. Using a combination of mechanical actuators, sensors, and even surface electromyography pads that can detect the electrical signals the brain is sending to the wearer’s neck muscles, the robotic brace can restore about 70 percent of an ALS patient’s autonomous movements and range of motion in their head.
In addition to eliminating dangerous side effects like troubled breathing, the robotic brace makes it easier for ALS patients to eat, and to communicate with family and medical professionals, including improved eye contact during conversations. But even when the progression of the condition prevents them from being able to talk, keeping their head upright allows them to use their eyes as joysticks for computer-based communication tools, such as the one Stephen Hawking relied on.
Details of a pilot study of the technology were recently published in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology journal, and after working with 11 ALS patients and 10 healthy subjects of the same age, the researchers also found the robotic brace could be used as a tool for detecting signs of the condition, and the degree of its progression in patients. Furthermore, its creators believe it could have applications outside of assisting those with ALS, like patients suffering from neck injuries who don’t necessarily need the movements of their head to be completely limited, or those dealing with poor neck control as a result of other neurological conditions like cerebral palsy.