December 10, 2013

MIT Biosuit is a non-bulky spacesuit that is more like a diving wetsuit for space and the basis for a soft exoskeleton for people with cerebral palsy

The Biosuit is pressurized close to the skin--an advance made possible by tension lines on the suit (those are the Spiderman lines) that don't break when an astronaut bends their arms or knees. Active materials, like nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys, allow the nylon and spandex suit to be shrink-wrapped around the skin even tighter, getting Newman closer to her goal of designing a suit that has 30% of the atmosphere's pressure--the level necessary to keep someone alive in space.

Newman's BioSuit is also resilient. If the suit gets punctured, an astronaut can fix it with a type of space-grade Ace Bandage. That's not possible with today's suits. "With a gas-pressurized shell, it's game over with a puncture," Newman tells me after her TED talk. And while today's suits can only be fitted to people 5' 5" and taller, essentially eliminating short women and men from the astronaut program, the BioSuit can be built for smaller people as well.

Newman is designing the suit for space, but she also has some Earth-bound uses in mind . The technology could be used to increase athletic performance (there is evidence showing the benefits of compression to the muscles and cardiovascular system) or even help boost mobility for people with cerebral palsy. "We'll probably send a dozen or so people to Mars in my lifetime. I hope I see it," she says. "But imagine if we could help kids with CP just move around a little bit better."

Biosuit with actuators would be a soft exoskeleton to help people with cerebral palsy move more easily

The “Bio-Suit” could form the foundation for a new type of Exoskeleton. One that is much less bulky and intrusive then current robotic like designs. In addition, much like the currently used Adeli Suit, the positive pressure aspect of the suit could help with sensory and stability issues.

Dr. Newman’s own team recognises these potential medial benefits and has been working with doctors at Children’s Hospital in Boston, Harvard’s Wyss Institute, Boston University, and Draper Laboratory to see if the bio-suit can help patients with anoxic brain injuries. For example, children with cerebral palsy, and even children and adult stroke victims, who typically lose motor skills on one side of their bodies.

Currently they are using the BioSuit and it’s built-in sensors to measure movements of normal children and adults and compare those to injured patients. As it turns out, when patients suffer a brain injury, its harder to move and often movement attempts are unsuccessful (for example spilling the cup of water, rather then drinking it). This leads to something that Dr. Ed Taub coined as “learned non-use”. When you don’t use movements, the brain quickly loses its programing for that movement. Taub’s studies showed this can happen as quickly as 1 month post accident.

However, Taub’s studies also also showed that movement could be preserved or even recovered through the use of what he called Constraint-Induced Therapy. Which was basically just forcing the patient to continue to use their movement patterns to avoid losing them.

Therefore, Dr. Newman’s team realizes the next step for the Bio-Suit would be to fit the suit with actuators. These would turn the Bio-Suit into a powered exoskeleton and would facilitate movement therapy like Dr. Taub has found to be successful and we have written about in the post exoskeleton-suits-for-cerebral-palsy-the-idea .

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