Robotics in Ongoing MS Therapy
A series of new studies and devices offer the promise of increased mobility and reduced pain.
By Multiple Sclerosis Connect Staff June 29, 2015 1,772 1 1
Peruse just about any engineering or science publication from the 1950s, and one thing becomes clear. The time we live in now, the shimmering world of tomorrow, was meant to be one filled with robot companions. Though the world is largely without these mechanical butlers, robotics has gradually permeated much of our culture. In recent years, great strides in this technology have also been made in MS therapy, offering new hope for pain reduction and increased mobility.
Moving with the mind
In a study published in Science, researchers from USC's Keck School of Medicine unveiled a possible new way to allow paraplegics and those living with MS mobility impairments to control robotic prosthetics: with their mind. According to Multiple Sclerosis News Today, 21-year-old Erik Sorto is one of the first test subjects to make use of an interface that is implanted in the brain's parietal cortex. This is a marked change from previous implants, which were housed in the motor cortex. According to researchers, using a different part of the brain enables him to better transmit the desire or intention of movement, which results in smoother, less jerky movements by the robotic arm.
It's a revolutionary point in the history of robotics, with much of the process having to be reinvented almost entirely, including the electrodes that were used, how the actual surgery was performed, and what hardware was involved. Results came quickly for Sorto, who was able to move the robotic arm in his first session. As he later explained, "I remember just having this out-of-body experience, and I wanted to just run around and high-five everybody."
Not only is it helpful for individuals, but Caltech reports that the device, referred to as a neuroprosthetic, is also expanding researchers’ understanding of the brain. "The thought actually needed to be more cognitive," said lead investigator Richard Andersen. "But if he just thought, 'I want to grasp the object,' it was much easier. And that is exactly what we would expect from this area of the brain." The more they learn about the parietal cortex, the more devices researchers might be able to develop in the future.
Another study is also using robotics to make progress in the field of MS research, albeit with a much different approach. Published in Neurorehabil Neural Repair, a study by a group of researchers from Brown University sought to improve the gait, or walking ability, of several MS patients. The disease often makes walking more difficult due to issues including numbness, visual impairments and muscle spasticity. Test subjects underwent a series of walking exercises on a treadmill either with or without the aid of a Lokomat, a kind of specially built harness that offers overall body support. The results of the test proved promising: subjects showed up to a 31 percent improvement on a timed 25-foot walk and 38.5 percent on a six-minute walk treadmill test.
It's only the beginning
Even with the promise offered by robotics, researchers and experts still urge those living with MS to remain cautious. For one thing, cost is an issue: according to one report from the International Conference on Rehabilitation Robotics (ICORR), prototypes for upper-extremity devices can run as high as $80,000. Brown University researcher Albert Lo stressed similar concerns in a Q&A at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers. Specifically, Lo indicates that many current robotic devices need some adaptation, as they're primarily set to aid stroke patients. Also, there are concerns regarding how these devices can be implemented into existing MS therapies. Still, with continued funding and research, robotics could become a bold new tool in furthering MS treatment
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