A total of 2.8 million people worldwide are estimated to live with MS, with this disease becoming increasingly prevalent in all world regions since 2013. MS affects the brain and spinal cord and occurs when the immune system begins to attack the protective sheath that protects nerve fibres. The ability of the brain to communicate with the rest of the body is impaired and eventually, nerves can become permanently damaged and movement can be significantly affected. The good news is that a groundbreaking device (known as a robotic ‘exoskeleton’) can help people with MS improve mobility and cognition.
A Pilot Study on People with MS
A recent pilot study (Androwis, 2021), published in the journal Multiple Sclerosis, has found that rehabilitation exercises using a robotic exoskeleton can benefit people with MS. The study compared the effects of four weeks of rehabilitation using the exoskeleton to four weeks of conventional gait training to measure results such as functional mobility, walking endurance, cognitive processing speed, and brain connectivity. One of the main aims of MS rehabilitation exercises is to regain previous levels of function. As nerves become damaged, muscles can also waste away so physical therapy aims to restore muscular strength in addition to movement. The results of the study showed that using the exoskeleton was associated with large improvements in functional mobility; however, more tests and research will be needed in order to achieve greater success in this field.
Improved Brain Efficiency
The study also showed that the use of the exoskeleton during rehabilitation enabled participants to make moderate improvements in cognitive processing speed (the ability to process information rapidly). Functional MRI tests revealed enhanced activity in the brain areas responsible for cognition and walking, as well as enhanced brain connectivity (especially between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and thalamus regions). The researchers conclude that the results support the use of robotic exoskeletons to induce neuroplasticity in people with MS who have substantial mobility problems.
Robotic Exoskeletons Are Already a Powerful Sector
The demand for robotic exoskeleton is rising exponentially, with the industry expected to reach $f,558.3 million (USD) by 2026. Just a few companies working on devices that can improve mobility include Lockheed Martin (in Maryland, USA), ReWalk Robotics (in Marlborough, USA), Ekso Bionics (California, USA), and Parker Hannifin (Cleveland, USA). ReWalk is one of the most studied exoskeletons of its kind and it recently signed a five-year collaboration to design a ‘soft suit’ device for people with MS, severely limited mobility, stroke, and more conditions. Current suits are rigid (since they are designed for people with spinal cord injury), while the new suit contains fabric pieces that enhance comfort. Suits vary depending on the condition of the wearer. For instance, the company is currently working on a suit for people with MS who have lower limb disabilities.
Robotic exoskeletons are providing new hope for improving mobility for people with MS and other conditions. Made by companies like ReWalk, these suits have been found to improve rehab outcomes (in terms of functional mobility and cognition). Companies are working to create more comfortable suits via the use of fabric pieces that are connected to cables. With so many top companies competing to outdo each other, the future is looking a little bit brighter for people with mobility disabilities.