Body weight support systems with three or more degrees of freedom (3-DoF) are permissive and safe environments that provide unloading and allow unrestricted movement in any direction. This enables training of walking and balance control at an early stage in rehabilitation. Transparent systems generate a support force vector that is near vertical at all positions in the workspace to only minimally interfere with natural movement patterns. Patients with impaired balance, however, may benefit from additional mediolateral support that can be adjusted according to their capacity. An elegant solution for providing balance support might be by rendering viscous damping along the mediolateral axis via the software controller. Before use with patients, we evaluated if control-rendered mediolateral damping evokes the desired stability enhancement in able-bodied individuals.
A transparent, cable-driven robotic body weight support system (FLOAT) was used to provide transparent body weight support with and without mediolateral damping to 21 able-bodied volunteers while walking at preferred gait velocity on a treadmill. Stability metrics reflecting resistance to small and large perturbations were derived from walking kinematics and compared between conditions and to free walking.
Compared to free walking, the application of body weight support per-se resulted in gait alterations typically associated with body weight support, namely increased step length and swing phase. Frontal plane dynamic stability, measured by kinematic variability and nonlinear dynamics of the center of mass, was increased under body weight support, indicating reduced balance requirements in both damped and undamped support conditions. Adding damping to the body weight support resulted in a greater increase of frontal plane stability.
Adding mediolateral damping to 3-DoF body weight support systems is an effective method of increasing frontal plane stability during walking in able-bodied participants. Building on these results, adjustable mediolateral damping could enable therapists to select combinations of unloading and stability specifically for each patient and to adapt this in a task specific manner. This could extend the impact of transparent 3-DoF body weight support systems, enabling training of gait and active balance from an early time point onwards in the rehabilitation process for a wide range of mobility activities of daily life.
Bannwart, M., Bayer, S.L., König Ignasiak, N. et al. Mediolateral damping of an overhead body weight support system assists stability during treadmill walking. J NeuroEngineering Rehabil 17, 108 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12984-020-00735-w
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