Researchers at the Harvard John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) in the US and the Boston University Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences have developed a soft robotic wearable garment that improves walking for individuals with Parkinson’s disease.

The device targets gait freezing, a common and highly debilitating symptom of the neurological disorder that often leads to falls.

Designed to be worn around the hips and thighs, the soft robotic exosuit provides gentle assistance to the hips during leg swings, facilitating a longer stride.

The device, which has successfully eliminated freezing episodes during indoor walking tests, allows the participant to walk faster and cover more distance than they could without the device.

SEAS engineering and applied sciences professor and the study’s co-corresponding author Conor Walsh said: “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.”

The research, recently published in Nature Medicine, highlights the potential of soft robotics in addressing the challenging symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

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SEAS and Sargent College were awarded a grant by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative in 2022 to advance the development of robotics and wearable technologies.

Walsh added: “Leveraging soft wearable robots to prevent freezing of gait in patients with Parkinson’s required a collaboration between engineers, rehabilitation scientists, physical therapists, biomechanists and apparel designers.”

Individuals with Parkinson’s suddenly lose the ability to move their feet when they freeze.