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Cyborg Exoskeleton Improves Parkinson’s Gait
Melding Man and Machine:

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder characterized by the build-up of α-synuclein in the brain.  The gradual accumulation of α-synuclein leads to formation of neurotoxic aggregates, called Lewy bodies, and neurodegeneration, particularly in neurons involved in dopamine signaling. Commonly known to impact a person’s mood, dopamine has multiple other functions, including the performance of fine motor actions and maintaining proper posture and gait.  Parkinson’s patients therefore develop a set of motor symptoms including tremor and gait imbalance that progressively worsen over time.

Recently, a study from the University of Tsukuba in Japan demonstrated the utility of a wearable cyborg Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) unit to improve gait in Parkinson’s patients, and patients with progressive supranuclear palsy (a different condition with Parkinson’s-like symptoms).  The HAL unit, functioning as a sort of exoskeleton, generates motor cues in response to biofeedback from the wearer to promote normal gait and movement.  All 5 patients showed improvements in gait disturbance while wearing the HAL unit, and 2 patients showed continued improvements when not wearing the unit. These results suggest the HAL-provided biofeedback and sensory cues improve CNS plasticity to promote proper posture and motor function. Overall, this feasibility study presents a promising potential aid for patients with Parkinson’s Disease and other similar neurodegenerative diseases, allowing patients to potentially gain greater gait independence and avoid falls that typically lead to hospitalization.

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