Powered Exoskeleton to Assist Walking
Shepherd Center provides clinical test ground for new device that gives freedom to those with limited mobility.
What’s in a name? The team behind a new powered exoskeleton designed to help people with spinal cord injury and other mobility-limiting conditions walk and regain independence will tell you everything.
The Indego® — short for independence and go — is living up to its carefully chosen name and could be available to clinical rehabilitation centers in the United States as early as next year thanks to an innovative partnership among Shepherd Center, Vanderbilt University and Parker Hannifin Corporation, the company that will manufacture the device.
Think of it as a Segway with legs, says device inventor Michael Goldfarb, Ph.D., the H. Fort Flowers Chair in Mechanical Engineering and professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Vanderbilt.
The Indego is worn on the outside of the body, helping users move their legs and allowing them to stand and walk. To go, the wearer leans forward. To stop or sit, they stand upright or lean back.
“It’s extremely intuitive and moves in harmony with the body,” says Clare Hartigan, a physical therapist and research coordinator at Shepherd Center. “It’s also the only device that allows the user to transport it completely by themselves. They can wear it in their wheelchair, in a restaurant or car. People have been in the device as long as six hours — sitting, standing and walking.”
The Indego has several other inherent advantages over existing lower-extremity exoskeletons, Hartigan says. It easily snaps apart and is compact and lightweight (27 versus 45 pounds or more for other exoskeletons). It is also the first to allow the wearer to vary the degree of robotic assistance applied based on his or her level of function and muscle control. “This device will adjust in the same way a physical therapist will interact with a patient differently depending on what that patient needs,” Dr. Goldfarb says.
So far, the device has been tested by 10 patients at Shepherd Center — and with great success.
David Carter, 27, of Dallas, Ga., was injured in a 2010 motorcycle accident, which left him with a T-7 complete SCI. After just three sessions with the Indego — only two to three hours each — he was able to walk by himself using a walker for the first time in two years.
“It was amazing to stand side-by-side with someone and look them in the eye rather than always looking up at them,” he says. It is technology that, in Indego’s case, has been developed and refined over several years with real-time feedback from clinicians and patients at Shepherd Center.
There are also secondary benefits associated with the weight-bearing and movement that come with using the device. For example, users report reduced spasticity and pain, improved bowel and bladder function and better skin health.
More recently, clinicians have started testing it on people recovering from stroke. Hartigan says the device has shown such promise that researchers now plan to expand their study from three to 20 people who have experienced a stroke. The device is retraining the way they walk by teaching them to trust their weaker leg, and it seems to be paying off.
Shepherd Center is Parker’s lead clinical partner. It is the only center with access to the device. In 2014, Shepherd and other select clinical centers will receive the generation-two prototype, and multi-site clinical trials will begin. Shepherd is charged with developing the clinical protocols for using the device, training clinicians at other rehabilitation centers and monitoring clinical trials.
For information about the trials at Shepherd Center, visit www.shepherd.org/research and complete the research intake form.
Written by Amanda Crowe, MA, MPH
Photography by Louie Favorite
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.