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Researchers at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute are testing new wearable technology that could “reawaken” muscles of people with paralysis from neurological problems, such as strokes or spinal cord injuries.

The shirts and pants will deliver functional electrical stimulation (FES); brief, low-intensity electrical impulses that stimulate neural pathways and generate muscle contraction. The technology could improve motor function, including the ability to stand and grasp objects.

“For older adults whose mobility and participation in society is limited by neurological conditions, the potential benefits are enormous,” says Dr. Milos Popovic, a world-renowned expert in rehabilitation engineering and also Rehab Chair in Spinal Cord Injury Research and Director of Research, Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (TRI), University Health Network.

Living well after paralysis

FES treatment could give back independence to those with limited mobility due to paralysis, making daily living activities, such as eating, dressing and bathing, possible again. Traditionally, treatment for people with neurological based paralysis has focused on physical therapy and in-hospital FES delivered with adhesive gel electrodes wired to iPad-sized stimulators.

Dr. Bastien Moineau dons the latest in FES wearable technology. Photo: Supplied.

Embedding the FES in a shirt has several advantages, according to Dr. Bastien Moineau, post-doctoral fellow at the Rehabilitation Engineering Laboratory, Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, who is working on the new technology alongside Dr. Popovic.

“It would not require assistance for people already independent for dressing, and wouldn’t be too difficult for people requiring caregiver assistance,” says Moineau. Because the electrodes and wires are integrated into a single item, it should be easy and comfortable to use.

And since users are in total control and can get the benefits of the FES from their own homes, they can decide when and how often they want to practice movements with the FES. “This could result in an increased total time of FES training, as compared to relying on visits to a clinician, thus potentially better physical improvements in the long run, including more dexterity and/or mobility,” Moineau adds.

Thanks to funding from AGE-WELL and Toronto Rehab Foundation, the researchers at Toronto Rehab-University Health Network are testing the FES shirt on people with upper limb paralysis, and holding focus groups with clinicians and users to figure out how to bring the innovative new therapeutic clothing to market.

Improvements in the works include, trying to reduce the time required to set-up the garment, as well as the reliability of positioning the garment and triggering the muscles, and the adjustment to specific body features.

“After this initial research and development phase, we will need to obtain a medical device license from Health Canada,” says Moineau.

The TRI team is working with Toronto-based “textile computing” company Myant Inc. to develop the FES garments. “We believe that this collaboration will be pivotal in accelerating the developments, as well as introducing the garments to the market,” Moineau explains. “We hope that a first product using this technology will be available to the public in three to five years.”