Dr. Haohan Zhang and the Utah Wearable Robotics Lab have published in the IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering (TNSRE) journal entitled “Preliminary Study on Effects of Neck Exoskeleton Structural Design in Patients With Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis”.

ABSTRACT: Neck muscle weakness due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) can result in dropped head syndrome, adversely impacting the quality of life of those affected. Static neck collars are currently prescribed to hold the head in a fixed upright position. However, these braces are uncomfortable and do not allow any voluntary head-neck movements. By contrast, powered neck exoskeletons have the potential to enable head-neck movements. Our group has recently improved the mechanical structure of a state-of-the-art neck exoskeleton through a weighted optimization. To evaluate the effect of the structural changes, we conducted an experiment in which patients with ALS were asked to perform head-neck tracking tasks while using the two versions of the neck exoskeleton. We found that the neck muscle activation was significantly reduced when assisted by the structurally enhanced design compared to no assistance provided. The improved structure also improved kinematics tracking performance, allowing users to better achieve the desired head poses. In comparison, the previous design did not help reduce the muscle effort required to perform these tasks and even slightly worsened the kinematic tracking performance. It was also found that biomechanical benefits gained from using the structurally improved design were consistent across participants with both mild and severe neck weakness. Furthermore, we observed that participants preferred to use the powered neck exoskeletons to voluntarily move their heads and make eye contact during a conversation task rather than remain in a fixed upright position. Each of these findings highlights the importance of the structural design of neck exoskeletons in achieving desired biomechanical benefits and suggests that neck exoskeletons can be a viable method to improve the daily life of patients with ALS.