She has been working to develop a new type of space suit. Currently space suits are like balloons. They are filled with pressurized gas to provide the astronaut with both oxygen and also positive pressure to counter the vacuum of space. The problem is that moving around inside of a pressurized bubble is not easy.
Therefore, Dr. Newman’s team at MIT is working with NASA to develop a new type of mechanical pressure suit they are calling the “Bio-Suit”. The key advantage for astronauts will be that it will allow much greater mobility. Much like having a second skin.
However, the “Bio-Suit” may have applications beyond space exploration. It is also very possible that 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 .
Here are Dr. Newman’s words: “People with cerebral palsy expend a lot of energy moving and have stiffened muscles; our BioSuit technology and know-how could guide movement and enhance mobility to make it more efficient. And because the brains of newborns are still so plastic, enhancing the natural kicking of infants with potential motor problems from brain damage might actually reshape the motor programs and partly “heal” their brains.”