This device helps paralyzed people breathe and sing

At its beginnings In his twenties, Lee Nam-hyun was an avid swimmer. But in 2004, he broke his neck in a swimming pool, leaving him paralyzed from the shoulders down. Recovery from his injuries took years of rehabilitation.

The accident also temporarily interrupted his lifelong passion for singing. Opera and K-pop songs are her favorites, and being able to sing again has become one of her main goals for recovery. But a lack of abdominal muscles and limited lung capacity meant he couldn’t even cough. When he tried to sing, he said, it sounded like a moan, or little more than a whisper.

“The singing I did before and after was completely different,” he says. “The sounds, the sounds, the rhythms, I couldn’t take any more after being injured. It was a sound that was not audible.

About two years after the accident, a medical professional forced him to cough by pushing against his diaphragm. He learned that applying pressure to his abdomen could help him make a more powerful sound.

Almost a decade later, he learned from therapists that a prototype device was being built for this purpose, and Lee began working with a biorobotics lab at Seoul National University. The device would eventually be named Exo-Abs. Its creators call it the first robotic device of its kind to help people breathe, cough, speak and sing by automatically applying pressure to their abdomen.

The creators of the device, which started as a class project, hope to someday make it into a commercial product. Researchers at the robotics lab began work on the prototype of the device after popular singer Kim Hyuk-gun was hit by a car and paralyzed in 2012. Kim was the lead vocalist of Cross, a group whose songs are still a popular choice in South Korean karaoke. bars. He is known for his singing style which is more like screaming, and two years after his injury he began working with the Biorobotics Lab on a device that allows him to sing at a similar volume. It was only later that researchers learned that patients with spinal cord injuries often need help not only to move their limbs again, but also for respiratory therapy.

“When you breathe out, you are basically pushing the belly and reducing the size of the lungs, so we try to mimic this process,” says Cho Kyu-jin, a professor at Seoul National University.

Cho is director of the university’s Soft Robotics Research Center, a biorobotics lab that draws inspiration from the natural world, including the human body. Besides Exo-Abs, Cho also created a robotic hand called Exo-Glove, a glider with wings like a ladybug and a robot that simulates skimmers, also called jesus bugs because of their ability to walk on water.

“All portable robots today involve moving limbs, such as arms, shoulders and legs,” he says. Exo-Abs is different because “it fundamentally changes your whole body volume”. But he says the device’s potential is largely unexplored because it isn’t well known.

People who suffer from strokes or neurological disorders often need ongoing care, including respiratory therapy. Failure to clear the airways can lead to illnesses such as pneumonia and premature death. Today, people use equipment like a ventilation mask to help them breathe, but the creators of Exo-Abs believe their device may one day replace ventilators for some people.

Unlike existing devices which may require the use of a face mask or ventilator, Exo-Abs can be concealed under a shirt. The machines used to operate the device fit into a backpack that can be attached to the back of a wheelchair. The current iteration of Exo-Abs involves bands placed across the chest and midsection to measure breathing and press against the diaphragm.

This is the third version of Exo-Abs. The former was controlled manually by the user using a joystick and had to be plugged into a power outlet. The second was a backpack version for people with conditions like COPD who may not need assistance all the time but may have difficulty, for example, climbing stairs without running out of steam.

Exo-Abs helps paralyzed people sing by putting pressure on the midsection.

The latest version of Exo-Abs uses artificial intelligence to regulate the pressure applied to the mid-section of a person. The AI ​​is powered by sensors that include a microphone that detects when a person is speaking and an elastic tube laced through a belt around the midsection to monitor breathing levels. It also takes into account a person’s physical form, body shape, the stiffness of the user’s abdominal cavity, and the user’s activity. Singing that takes a lot of effort like opera, for example, may require more pressure than sitting still and having a conversation.

Lee Sang-yoep, a doctoral student at Seoul National University who works with Cho, is considering other uses of Exo-Abs, such as synchronizing artificial abs with music or singing puzzle games like One-handed applause.

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