ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, causes the death of neurons responsible for controlling muscles, which affects about 5,000 people in the U.S. each year. The condition erodes muscle control to the point that even lifting the head becomes nearly impossible in the late stages of the disease. Several engineers from Columbia University have designed a robotic neck brace to help improve the quality of life for those with ALS, which they state restores around 70% of their head and neck movement.
The robotic brace looks much like an exoskeleton, and in some ways it is, as it uses a series of sensors, actuators, and electromyography (EMG) pads to provide a range of motion for the neck and head. Those EMG pads detect the electrical signals the brain sends to the user’s neck muscles and adjusts the brace accordingly. The sensors and EMG pads can also be used as a diagnostic tool for the impaired motion of the neck and head for rehabilitation for those who have suffered neck-related injuries such as whiplash or those who have limited neck control from neurological diseases like cerebral palsy.
As mentioned earlier, the robotic brace can help the wearer’s quality of life — including regaining eye contact while communicating, improving those with troubled breathing, and making it easier to eat, things most of us take for granted. The device also allows them to use their eyes as joysticks for computer-based tools in the same manner as late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. The engineers detail their robotic brace design in a recent released paper entitled “A robotic neck brace to characterize head-neck motion and muscle electromyography in subjects with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.”