September 25, 2011

Dutch Researchers Develop Prototype Robotic Legs

Researchers in the Netherlands have built a prototype device that could help patients who have suffered a stroke or spinal injury improve their movement, BBC News Health Reporter Neil Bowdler wrote on Friday.

The device, Bowdler says, is known as the Lower-extremity Powered ExoSkeleton (LOPES), and it "works by training the body and mind of a patient to recover a more natural step."

LOPES was developed by engineers at the University of Twente in Enschede in the Netherlands. It is not a mobile device, the BBC News reporter points out, but it does support patients while the complete their rehab work, such as walking on a treadmill. The scientists behind the device are hopeful that it could be made available to other facilities sometime in 2012.

The device can reportedly do all of the walking for a patient, or it can be adapted to offer support in just one leg or assist with just one aspect of the walking process. Bowdler says that it can also pinpoint errors in the patient's movement mechanics.
"For instance, some people cannot lift their foot up appropriately," Dr Edwin van Asseldonk, one of the experts behind LOPES, told BBC News. "What this device does is it senses that the foot is not lifting properly“¦ It then compares it with a reference pattern and then exerts a force or torque to assist that subject in doing it."

Bowdler also discusses one of the patients testing the device, a woman named Petra Hes. Hes has a condition known as a "drop foot," meaning that she cannot lift or flex as she once did--the result of a stroke when she was just 17.

Not only does the machine allow her to force the left leg to move as it should, but researchers appear to believe that it could trigger something in her central nervous system or act as a "memory aid" and allow her to remember how to move the foot on her own.

She told Bowdler that the first time she used LOPES, "I got a eureka moment because I felt an old feeling of how to walk normally“¦That push-up I felt and my knee lifting it is what I've forgotten. I couldn't reproduce it myself so I had to feel it again."

According to the official LOPES website, the robotic leg prototype is the culmination of work begun in 2001. The LOPES team consists of university staff members Dr. ir Herman van der Kooij (project coordinator) and Dr. Edwin van Asseldonk, current Ph. D. students Ir. Bram Koopman and Ir. Jos Meuleman, and former doctorate students Dr. ir. Jan Veneman, Ir. Ralf Ekkelenkamp, and Dr. Ir. Heike Vallery.


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