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New Hope for People with MS, Parkinson’s: Exosuit May Make Walking Easier

Lisa Braun knows what it feels like to move with Parkinson’s disease.

A long-time marathon runner, she’s been battling Parkinson’s — and struggling with her gait — since 2015.

She knows she’s not alone.

Braun deals with it every day as an owner and coach at Rock Steady Boxing, a gym program in Massachusetts that focuses on helping people with Parkinson’s.

That’s why news of the exosuit, a Harvard-created lightweight suit that studies the movements of a person and then kicks in to help the lower body work more efficiently, is a thrill to her.

“Getting their muscle memory back and getting them to remember how to extend their stride and do things like jump without fear. That’s our goal every day,” Braun told Healthline. “An exosuit would absolutely help build confidence and muscle memory. It’s incredible to think of.”

“Use” may replace simply thinking of soon.

It’s already being utilized to help stroke survivors, who are using soft exosuits to boost strength, stamina, and confidence in walking and running.

Creators hope that the next step will be to use the suits to help people with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s.

What is an exosuit?

The exosuit was created by a Harvard design lab team led by Conor Walsh, a professor of engineering and applied sciences at Harvard University.

The research team published its findings this month in the journal Science.

The exosuit is like the new cool cousin of the exoskeleton. It’s much lighter at about 11 pounds and adaptable to the person from moment to moment.

Turn the suit on and it works with a wearer’s gluteal muscles to increase hip joint torque, making walking and running motions more achievable.

Turn it off and it hangs comfortably like an average pair of pants.

Walsh said the idea came to him when he was helping test an exoskeleton in the lab.

It was an effective but rigid tool, he said, “so I thought about approaching it from a different perspective.”

The exosuit boosts a person’s ability to move by as much as 20 to 30 percent, Walsh said.

“The idea is if we can give them just enough of a boost to help them walk better, they’ll improve faster,” he told Healthline.

Comfort and usefulness

The dual goal of Walsh’s team was effectiveness and comfort.

For comfort, the suit’s lightness combined with its design has pleased people who use them.

Like any “robot,” the exosuit has electronics. By placing the heaviest around the waistband, and keeping the cables that run down the body to power the muscles light, they found a suit with balance.

People can carry weight around the waist area the easiest, Walsh explained. Because of this, a person adjusts to wearing the suit within minutes of putting it on.

The suit also gathers and shares quantitative metrics such as changes in gait and speed. That, along with the simple feeling of moving the body better again, has its own impact.

It builds not strength — but that magical component Braun works to build in her clients: confidence.

“When you think about what is important to someone in rehab, motivation is a big part of it,” Walsh said. “So if you feel you are moving and doing better, your motivation and confidence builds. And that pushes you forward.”

Moving ahead

The exosuit was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in June. It’s the first soft exosuit to receive the go-ahead from the federal agency.

Harvard has partnered with REWalk Robotics to distribute the company’s ReStore exosuit to rehabilitation centers.

“This is a much different category than our previous devices (such as exoskeletons),” Andy Dolan, vice president of global marketing for REWalk Robotics, told Healthline.

Dolan noted that the exosuit’s price of $30,000 is markedly less than other devices that come in around $100,000.

“And this is very adaptable to patients,” he said. For that reason, the company hopes to “upend” the market and get the exosuits in small clinics everywhere.

For Walsh and his team, the work at how to adapt this to people other than stroke survivors is ongoing. Dolan and his company support that.

“Most patients want to be active in life,” said Dolan. “This can help with just that.”

He foresees a time in the future when exosuit therapy could be a home health component.

Walsh and his team are on it. The next step, he said, is to study the motions and challenges of people with multiple sclerosis and then Parkinson’s.

“We have to understand the mechanics of each,” he said. “The ankles, the hips, and more. It’s all affected different ways (by different diseases).”

Braun is all in for that — not just for her own good, but for her clients at Rock Steady as well.

“Parkinson’s is a movement disorder,” she said. “It changes your gait. It makes people shuffle. Rock Steady does exercises to help that, but this would power boost that.

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