An interdisciplinary team of UMass researchers has been awarded a grant of $612,700 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through its R21 Trailblazer Award program.
Dr. Meghan Huber and Dr. Wouter Hoogkamer, assistant professors in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and the Department of Kinesiology, respectively, are the principal investigators. Mark Price, a postdoctoral researcher in both departments who works with Huber and Hoogkamer, is also among the senior staff on the award. Huber and Hoogkamer were also recipients of a UMass ADVANCE Collaborative Research Seed Grant in 2021, which supported the initiation of this collaborative project.
The Trailblazer Award will enable Huber, Hoogkamer, and their team to develop novel portable, robotic footwear. Specifically, these shoes will be designed such that the compliance of sole can be actively controlled. This new tool will allow the team to answer important research questions related to how humans control walking and maintain balance over varying terrains. The results of this work will inform the development of new approaches to locomotor and balance rehabilitation.
Their proposed work holds significant promise, considering numerous medical conditions—in addition to old age—can cause balance and locomotor problems. For instance, 80% of stroke survivors experience some form of walking impairment, and Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis often lead to balance dysfunction. Not only are such impairments dangerous, but they can have a damaging impact on an individual’s quality of life and sense of independence. Ultimately, this footwear has the potential to have a profound impact on the lives of people experiencing balance and walking issues.
In response to receiving the award, Huber noted that, “As engineers, we can’t help but be intrigued by the opportunity to ideate a whole new type of wearable robot from scratch. But more importantly, as people, we are most excited by the potential to transform gait rehabilitation and, ultimately, improve people’s quality of life.”