Parkinson's affects nearly 10 million people worldwide and there's no cure. Since it's a progressive movement disorder, the longer you have it the worse it gets, and for nearly 60% of people with Parkinson's, that means experiencing a fall. Two-thirds of Parkinson's patients who have a fall experience recurrent falls.
A team of researchers from the University of Houston is hoping to help Parkinson's patients gain more balance with a new smart belt they're calling the Smarter Balance System. It's a custom wearable belt lined with vibrating actuators. These can detect how a person is moving, connect to a smartphone and then create a custom in-home rehabilitation program.
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"The smartphone application records and creates a custom motion for their body tilt based on their individual limits of stability," Albert Fung, a UH graduate student on the project, told Science Daily. "The touch guidance from the vibrating actuators is almost acting as if a physical therapist is guiding them."
While medication, deep brain simulation surgery or other wearable devices like Microsoft's Project Emma can help mitigate many Parkinson's symptoms, the postural instability or weakness that leads to Parkinson's patents falling is much more difficult to treat and manage.
The system is also aimed to fill a gap for patients who cannot rehabilitate at a clinic for whatever reason, whether it be because of a lack of clinics in the area or the ability to afford it, according to Beom-Chan Lee, assistant professor at UH and a principal investigator of the study. However, Lee notes that the device isn't meant to replace actual physical therapists, only to make up for a lack of physical therapists.
Speaking of professionals, all of the data collected by the system can easily be uploaded to the cloud for doctors and physical therapists to look at, enabling them to track a patient's progress or adjust the rehabilitation program to better suit the needs of the patient. Thus far, patients who have tried out the wearable belt for six weeks have seen "noticeable improvements" according to Lee.
While the belt isn't available to purchase yet, Lee says he hopes to make it available commercially by next summer.