Indian-American scientist develops device for spinal cord injury patients

indica News Bureau-


In a breakthrough invention to assist people suffering from  Spinal Cord Injuries (SCI), a Columbia Engineering team, led by an Indian-American scientist has developed a robotic device that can help people with SCI sit more stabley, improving trunk control, gaining an expanded active sitting workspace without falling over or using their hands to balance.

With several people losing mobility and sensation in their limbs due to spinal cord injuries, this invention can help them lead better lives even after SCI. 

Sunil Agarwal, a professor of mechanical engineering and of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine, said, “We designed TruST for people with SCIs who are typically wheelchair users. We found that TruST not only prevents patients from falling, but also maximizes trunk movements beyond patients’ postural control, or balance limits.”

According to the journal of Spinal Cord Series and Cases, that published the study, this  study is the first to measure and define the sitting workspace of patients with spinal cord injuries based on their active trunk control with help from the “Trunk-Support Trainer (TruST)” robotic device.

The robotic trunk is a motorized-cable driven belt placed on the user’s torso to determine the postural control limits and sitting workspace area in people with spinal cord injuries.

It delivers forces on the torso when the user performs upper body movements beyond the postural stability limits while sitting.

Pilot study for developing the device

The five patients who participated in the pilot study were examined with the Postural Star-Sitting Test, a customized postural test that required them to follow a ball with their head and move their trunk as far as possible, without using their hands.

The test was repeated in eight directions, and the researchers used the results to compute the sitting workspace of each individual.

The team then tailored the robotic device for each subject to apply personalized assistive force fields on the torso while the subjects performed the same movements again.

With the ‘TruST’, the subjects were able to reach further during the trunk excursions in all eight directions and significantly expand the sitting workspace around their bodies, on an average of about 25 per cent more.

“The capacity of ‘TruST’ to deliver continuous force-feedback personalised for the user’s postural limits opens new frontiers to implement motor learning-based paradigms to retrain functional sitting in people with SCI,” says Victor Santamaria, a physical therapist, postdoctoral researcher in Agrawal’s Robotics and Rehabilitation Laboratory.

Agrawal’s team is now exploring the use of TruST within a training paradigm to improve the trunk control of adults and children with spinal cord injury.

“The robotic platform will be used to train participants with the SCI by challenging them to move their trunk over a larger workspace, with the TruST providing assist-as-needed force fields to safely bring the subjects back to their neutral sitting posture,” elaborated Agrawal.

“This force field will be adjusted to the needs of the participants over time as they improve their workspace and posture control,” he added.

Dr Sunil Agarwal designs novelty robotic devices to help humans

According to his official website, Dr Sunil K. Agrawal has developed a highly visible interdisciplinary program in rehabilitation robotics involving faculty from School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and College of Physician and Surgeons at Columbia University. Neural disorders, such as stroke and Parkinson’s disease, limit the ability of humans to walk and perform activities of daily living. Pediatric disorders such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and Down’s syndrome delay the development of children and pose many functional limitations. Old age diminishes the sensory and motor systems. Through a range of pilot and clinical studies involving human subjects, Dr. Agrawal has showed that novel training robots can help humans to relearn, restore, or improve functional movements.

Apart from ‘TruST’, Agrawal has active collaborations with faculty in the departments of Neurology, Rehabilitation Medicine, Pediatric Orthopedics, Otolaryngology, Geriatrics, and Psychiatry. Agrawal received a BS in mechanical engineering from IIT, Kanpur (India) in 1984, a MS degree from Ohio State University in 1986, and a PhD degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, California, in 1990.   He is a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE). He is an author of 450 research articles, 3 books, and 13 patents. 

Dr. Agarwal is undertaking several studies that are funded by grants from National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health, Spinal Cord Injury Research Board, and others. A few of his current studies include-

(i) Perturbation training of the elderly using a Tethered Pelvic Assist Device (TPAD) 

(ii) Gait training of stroke patients with asymmetric forces

(iii) Balance training of children with cerebral palsy

(iv) Gait characterization of patients with vestibular disorders

(v) Balance Training of Parkinson patients

(vi) Novel neck braces for assistance and training of patients with head drop

(vii) Novel dynamic spine braces for patients with scoliosis.