Robots come in all shapes and sizes and do all sorts of interesting things, from building cars to collecting comet dust. Some robots — like VA’s ‘Anklebot’ — can even help you walk better after you’ve had a stroke.
“We’re conducting a two-year study to see if the Anklebot can help stroke survivors improve their gait,” explained Larry Forrester, lead investigator and researcher at the VA Maryland Health Care System in Baltimore and an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
“It’s way too early for us to draw concrete conclusions,” he continued, “but initial results suggest that repeatedly walking on a treadmill with the Anklebot may improve independent gait velocity and forward propulsion by improving ankle control at key times during walking.”
In other words, Anklebot gradually retrains your brain and muscles, helping you recapture — at least to some extent — the way you walked before you had your stroke. “Many of our study participants are telling us that Anklebot is really helping them,” Forrester said.
…may improve independent gait velocity and forward propulsion…
— Larry Forrester, researcher, Baltimore VA
One of those study participants is Vivian Elaine James, a 52-year-old Veteran who suffered a stroke in 2011. The event partially paralyzed her left side, seriously affecting her balance and mobility.
“I’ve only participated in the study for three months,” she said, “But those three months made a major difference in my life. I still need to be careful when I’m walking on a surface that isn’t solid, but I don’t need assistance any more. Using the Anklebot made a big difference in the strength of my left leg.”
Here’s how it works: while James walks on a treadmill at the Baltimore VA, electronic switch plates in her shoes monitor how well she’s lifting her left foot. The switch plates transmit that information into a computer, which then sends signals to Anklebot’s pistons, situated on either side of her left ankle. The pistons continuously provide appropriate amounts of ‘boost’ — not too much, not too little — helping James complete each step.
"Our study participants practice on the treadmill three times each week for up to 40 minutes, wearing the Anklebot,” said Anindo Roy, a robotics engineer with the Baltimore VA Medical Center and an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He and Forrester are co-directors of the study.
“The idea is to progressively wean the stroke victim off robotic assistance as they move incrementally toward a more normal gait,” Roy explained. “Anklebot knows when to ‘get out of the way’ when appropriate, allowing the patient to increasingly perform movements on their own.”
VA researchers worked with scientists at MIT to create the Anklebot.View Anklebot in action