Robotic neck brace to aid head motion in ALS patients

13 August 2019 (Last Updated August 13th, 2019 13:47)

Columbia Engineering researchers have developed a robotic neck brace to support the head’s range of motion in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patients.

Robotic neck brace to aid head motion in ALS patients
A study participant wearing the new robotic neck brace. Credit: Haohan Zhang and Sunil K. Agrawal/Columbia Engineering.

Columbia Engineering researchers have developed a robotic neck brace to support the head’s range of motion in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patients.

The wearable neck brace combines sensors and actuators to adjust the head posture and restore nearly 70% of the active range of motion, said the research team.

Measurement of the motion with the device’s sensors along with surface electromyography (EMG) of the neck muscles is expected to serve as a diagnostic tool for impaired head-neck motion.

ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that causes progressive loss of muscle functions and leads to paralysis of the limbs as well as respiratory failure.

It is characterised by a dropped head due to declining neck muscle strength. Over time, patients are known to completely lose head mobility which results in impaired speech, breathing and swallowing.

Researchers noted that existing neck braces are static and grow ineffective with disease progression.

The new robotic neck brace is expected to improve quality of life, while allowing better eye contact during conversation. The team also believe the device will enable the use of patients’ eyes to control movements on a computer.

Columbia University Irving Medical Center neurology professor Hiroshi Mitsumoto said: “We have two medications that have been approved, but they only modestly slow down disease progression.

“Although we cannot cure the disease at this time, we can improve the patient’s quality of life by easing the difficult symptoms with the robotic neck brace.”

Researchers evaluated the robotic neck brace in a study involving 11 ALS patients and ten healthy, age-matched participants.

During the study, subjects performed single-plane motions of the head-neck such as flexion-extension, lateral bending and axial rotation.

It was observed that patients used a different head-neck coordination strategy when compared to healthy subjects. These characteristics are said to be relatable to routinely used clinical ALS scores.

According to researchers, measurements by the new device can be clinically applied for the assessment of head drop and ALS progression.

They also believe that the neck brace could be useful to people with whiplash neck injuries or other neurological disease patients with poor neck control.