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Soft Robotic Technology for People With ALS: What You Need To Know
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Soft Robotic Technology for People With ALS: What You Need To Know

Wearable health technology is now considered standard fare in the healthcare industry. In fact, they are predicted to remain popular over the next few years as more people become open to sharing their health data with healthcare professionals and insurance.

For instance, wrist-mounted sensors have made it easier than ever for doctors to collect data that might inform treatment decisions and encourage patients to adopt healthier routines. 

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Soft robotic technology is one of the new advancements in wearable health technology designed to benefit people with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). This allows them to complete day-to-day activities easier, like assisting them in lifting the shoulders to facilitate arm movements.

In this post, we will learn more about Soft Robots and how this wearable technology can help people with ALS, so make sure to stick around until the end. 

What Are Wearable Health Technologies?

Wearable health technologies refer to various devices that patients can wear on their bodies to monitor their health and fitness and then share that information with their physicians, other health professionals, insurance, and any other appropriate parties. 

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Wearable technology in healthcare includes fitness trackers, smart watches, electrocardiogram (ECG) monitors, blood pressure monitors, and biosensors. They have experienced a surge in demand due to their numerous advantages. 

In 2020, the market for intelligent wearable technology was valued at $13.8 billion, and experts anticipate that this number will more than double to $37.4 billion by 2028.

What Is Soft Robotics?

Everything we once thought was impossible is now achievable, thanks to the development of Soft Robotic technology, from regrowing shattered limbs to producing exceptionally powerful muscles. Following the introduction of the first soft robots in 2011, the potential applications of this technology have increased.

Soft robotic aims to build artificial muscles and organs that are more comparable to biological systems. This is accomplished by freeing robots from the limitations imposed by hard materials such as metal and plastic. Throughout history, robots have typically been constructed from brittle materials such as metal and plastic. Motors and several other powerful electromechanical actuators have been used to power them. 

However, soft robotics aims to create soft, flexible, and compliant robots like biological organisms. This is in contrast to traditional robotics. The “body” of a soft robot is flexible and resembles natural tissue in texture. Instead of being powered by bulky motors, soft artificial muscles drive a soft robot.

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Soft robotics’ most promising applications as a wearable technology include the following:

  • Wearable soft robots – Providing muscular support so that we can emulate human muscles is one of the greatest challenges in robotics. This is helpful when it comes to therapy after surgery or for people with mobility issues.
  • Prosthetic limbs – Those who have lost limbs or other body parts due to accidents or combat injuries can benefit greatly from this technology. Yet, developing fully functional prosthetics is more challenging than it may first appear. Though highly effective in terms of customization, such prosthetics tend to be inflexible and unresponsive.
  • Origami muscle robots – Origami robots walk, throw, and swim by folding metal or plastic sheets into shapes. Micro-pneumatic actuators allow them to fold into complicated shapes. Folding, unfolding, and re-folding make origami robots powerful in that they can fold into tight areas and stretch as needed without losing pneumatic force.

These robots, when combined, can bring in the next revolution in biomimetics and transform how humans live and carry out their daily activities, especially in their role as wearable technology in healthcare.

What Is Soft Robotics For ALS Patients?

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects about 30,000 people in the United States and causes progressive degeneration of the motor-controlling brain and spinal cord cells.

Recent news published about Soft robotic wearable showed two human torsos, each outfitted in a black soft robotics vest. It uses an accessory to lift their arms and a technological box to carry in their lower back. This wearable soft robotic device can help persons with ALS move their arms and shoulders significantly.

Photo courtesy of Walsh Lab, Harvard SEAS, taken here.

Now, a group of researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) has developed a soft robotic wearable that is capable of significantly assisting upper arm and shoulder movement in people who have Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

“This study gives us hope that soft robotic wearable technology might help us develop new devices capable of restoring functional limb abilities in people with ALS and other diseases that rob patients of their mobility,” says Conor Walsh, senior author in a paper reporting the team’s work that was published in Science Translational Medicine.

How Does Soft Robotics Work?

Patients with ALS can benefit from the soft robotic technology because they are created with a sensor system that can detect any remaining arm movement and adjust the pressure applied to the balloon actuator so that it moves the patient’s arm in a natural and comfortable manner. In order to determine if this device could improve the mobility and quality of life of those with ALS, the researchers enlisted the help of ten patients. 

Photo courtesy of Walsh Lab, Harvard SEAS, taken here.

After a 30-second calibration process to detect each wearer’s unique level of mobility and strength, the researchers found that the soft robotic wearable increased the participants’ range of motion, decreased their muscle fatigue, and enhanced their ability to perform tasks such as holding or trying to reach for objects. 

Fabric and balloons make these systems fundamentally safe. One researcher explained,  “When a soft robot fails, instead of the stiff parts breaking, the balloons just stop inflating. Posing no danger to the wearer from the robot.  It is also lightweight and comfortable, like wearing regular clothes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are soft materials used In robotics?

Silicone elastomers, urethanes, hydrogels, braided textiles, hydraulic fluids, and gasses are some examples of soft components frequently used to construct soft robots.

What are examples of soft robotics?

Muscular hydrostats include structures like the tentacles of squid, elephant trunks, and the tongues of lizards and mammals. Despite their superior locomotion abilities, squid and starfish ways of movement have not been utilized profitably in traditional hard robotics.

What are the advantages of soft robots?

Safe human-machine contact, adaptation to wearable devices, and a simple gripping system are only a few of the benefits of soft robots compared to traditional robots. Soft robots’ distinctive qualities and benefits make them useful in various situations.

What types of robots are used in healthcare?

The different types of medical robots are surgical robots or robots that assist surgery, robotics for radiotherapy, rehabilitation robots, laboratory robots, robotic prosthetics, hospital robots, and social robots.

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