How Robotic Exoskeletons Can Help Paraplegic Patients Heal

Gordon Cheng, Professor of Cognitive Systems, wants to deepen our understanding of how the brain works. Astrid Eckert / TUM

When a team of neuroscientists equipped paraplegic patients with exoskeletons, they hoped that the patients could use the robotic aid to walk. But they found something even more remarkable: using the exoskeleton helped them heal, and patients regained control of their legs.

Even a few years later, none of these patients go unaided. The team, led by Gordon Cheng from the Technical University of Munich (TUM), wants to find new ways to help rehabilitation with the help of robotics. In a new article in Science Robotics, Cheng and colleagues consider the next steps in integrating neuroscience and robotics.

One area of ​​interest is to improve the hardware used for exoskeletons to make them more comfortable and familiar to users. “The exoskeleton that we have used for our research so far is actually just a large piece of metal and therefore quite cumbersome for the wearer,” Cheng said in an interview.

“I want to develop a ‘soft’ exoskeleton – something that can be simply worn like a piece of clothing, that both recognizes the user’s movement intentions and gives immediate feedback. Integration with recent advances in the brain-machine interfaces that measure brain responses in real time enables such exoskeletons to be seamlessly tailored to the needs of individual users. “

The idea behind this approach is to create a machine that can be used more naturally as an extension of the body so that actions can be performed without consciously thinking about using the machine. Cheng gives the example of driving a car when you control the vehicle without thinking about how your hands move on the steering wheel or your feet on the pedals.

Researchers still aren’t sure exactly how this type of adaptation to a machine works, but Cheng suspects that the brain adapts to treat the car as if it were a part of the body. If something similar could be achieved with exoskeletons, it could help people move around with them more freely.

The researchers not only want to make machines more user-friendly for humans, they also want to produce robots that behave more humanly. The development of robots that can mimic human characteristics, such as: B. Robots that use artificial muscles can help researchers more accurately model the relationship between the brain and the body. This could help develop better interfaces between the brain and machine in the future.

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