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Thursday, December 8, 2022

Academics & Research

Exoskeleton research proves mind over matter


In a collaboration between NASA and UH, the NASA X1 robotic exoskeleton is hoped to be able to help immobile patients learn how to walk again. | Courtesy of Cullen College of Engineering

Technology developed to prevent muscle atrophy in space is coming back down to earth with a research collaboration between NASA and UH professor of electrical and computer engineering Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal.

Contreras-Vidal’s brain-machine interface technology is now being tested with NASA’s X1 robotic exoskeleton to assist patients learning to walk again after a debilitating event like a stroke, according to the Cullen College of Engineering’s website.

Contreras-Vidal’s brain interface device allows the exoskeleton to be controlled with a non-invasive cap that scans brain activity, turning that data into commands and translating it into movement.

The aim of this collaboration is to assist individuals recovering from a brain injury by helping the brain to rewire itself, said Toby Weber from Cullen College of Engineering’s communication department. Researchers hope that thinking about walking, while walking with the assistance of the exoskeleton, will give the brain the opportunity to relearn how to control a patient’s legs.

The exoskeleton weighs less than 60 pounds and is strapped to the user’s body to either assist or resist the user’s movement through four motorized joints adjacent to the user’s legs.

Based on NASA’s Robonaut 2, the device was developed by NASA and the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, Fla. The Robonaut projects were a line of four humanoid robots developed to assist or replace humans in space exploration, construction and maintenance.

Pepe REX Demo August#14BE05

The exoskeleton is based off of NASA’s Robonaut 2, and is a collaboration with UH professor of electrical and computer engineering Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, pictured second from left. | Courtesy of Cullen College of Engineering

“What’s extraordinary about space technology are the unexpected possibilities space-tech spinoffs may have right here on Earth,” said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program, in a press release.

“It’s exciting to see a NASA-developed technology that might one day help people with serious ambulatory needs begin to walk again, or even for the first time.”

Previous efforts with the 87-pound Rehab-Rex exoskeleton have been successful in allowing subjects, like wheelchair-bound paraplegic patient Gene Alford, to use brain-controlled robotic legs to walk.

He demonstrated this to Rep. John Culberson at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute on Aug. 22.

On Sept. 5, a $695,000 grant was awarded to the project by The Cullen Foundation and the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research. Methodist Hospital, a partner in that research, now features Contreras-Vidal’s work in their Leading Medicine advertising campaign.

Another round of testing is planned for the first week of October.

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