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A 20-year adventure in rehab robotics

Tech pioneer Hocoma has long been pushing the boundaries of innovation in rehab. Now marking its 20th anniversary, it plans to step up its ability to drive better patient outcomes, as Deborah Johnson reports.

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Back in 2000, the world was a very different place, particularly in terms of technology.

Many of the high-tech innovations we now accept as standard were not yet launched and healthcare remained one of the most traditional markets around.

Yet into this climate, Hocoma launched the prototype of its pioneering Lokomat, a robotic medical device which provides repetitive and highly physiological gait training to patients, enabling even some of the most impaired to learn to walk again.

While it has gone on to become one of the world’s leading robotic medical devices, in 2000, it was a significant and controversial disruption into a long- established and relatively low-tech rehab scene.

Clemens Muller, global head of clinical and scientific affairs at Hocoma, says: “Twenty years ago, gait rehabilitation was completely different.

Therapists had to physically move patients’ legs – a manual task that can be very tiring and requires huge effort, particularly when you are doing it many times a day.”

Gery Colombo, a trained electrical engineer with an interest in neural rehabilitation, founded Hocoma alongside Peter Hostettler, an economist, and Matthias Jörg, a biomedical engineer.

“The founders realised the need for a change to this way of doing things and to find a better solution,” says Clemens.

“They wanted to establish a venture which could use their specialist knowledge and go in a particular direction, with a purpose and intention.

“The goal was to change rehab as it was known. This was absolutely new; in fact so new and innovative that the world of healthcare rehabilitation wasn’t really ready for it.

“This was a challenging phase but one in which Hocoma needed to be really entrepreneurial with a very clear vision and focus and to keep on going.

“It did take a little while until it was accepted and it was a long journey for the founders.”

Despite the initial challenges of launching such a high- tech product, over the past two decades, the Lokomat has become one of the most widely used gait rehabilitation devices in the world.

It has helped to set an industry standard in rehab products for people with brain injury, stroke and other neurological disorders.

Hocoma recently installed its 1,000th Lokomat.

But it has also built on the success of its flagship product by launching an array of other devices.

Among its product portfolio is the Erigo, which assists with patient mobilisation in the earliest stages of rehabilitation; its Armeo range, which supports the recovery of arm and hand function; and its Valedo products that targets back pain.

The business is headquartered in Switzerland but works in 27 countries worldwide – and believes it is changing the lives of people in clinics across the globe.

Clemens says: “I think there are three drivers behind innovation in healthcare – social aspect, which includes demographic changes and the shift from using products which are based on evidence rather than just experience; the technology changes in the world as a whole; and the clinical changes, which are moving on quickly and have changed dramatically to encompass robotics and exploit the previously unused potential of this way of therapy.

“These drivers have changed, and continue to change, the landscape of the world in which we work. Hocoma has always been at the front pushing the boundaries and helping to change the resistance there was at the beginning of our journey.

“When you went to a rehab conference 15 or 20 years ago, there was only one tech provider there, which was us.

“But if you compare that to now, there can be anything up to 20 companies at an event, including start-ups that are working in technology fields like robotics or sensor-based equipment, offering products for inpatients and outpatients, for acute needs. So there is a huge selection now available.

“There is also the demand from the market to integrate technology. The key for us has always been how to integrate this technology into a routine of therapy to use it to its full potential.

“It is about not only being engineering-driven but understanding how to use that to make a bridge to the rehab world and understand the link to the human world – bringing the know-how and capability and opening that up for the needs of patients.

“As a market, we do need to do more homework in that area.

“Lots of clinics already have integrated the technology they are using very successfully, and with our products it makes us proud to see how the patient is being supported to the highest level.

“I have seen this happening in many clinics around the world and it gives me goosebumps to see how happy patients are with how it is working for them. It also makes a huge difference to the work and demands placed on the therapist, and that is something that also makes us so proud.”

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Hocoma’s ambition for the future is to continue changing lives and reaching out to millions more around the world.

A strategic move in achieving this came in 2017 when Hocoma joined its now-parent company DIH – bringing it under the same roof as other rehab technology developers including Motek.

“We have always been a pioneer since we were established so we will continue this with new and better solutions to benefit people’s lives.

“Our focus is on bringing solutions which are innovative, high quality, effective and efficient.

“The future for us will of course be affected by the healthcare market in general. We are seeing a rapid demographic change around the world and this will mean a change in the healthcare approach.

“There will be a search for solutions.

“With the huge move towards digitalisation through the Industrial Revolution 4.0, there will be a greater role played by artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

We will continue to develop as a business so we can continue to be at the front of what is happening.

“Traditionally, we have come up with a new innovation every year, which could be a new product launch, or else new features or a new version of an existing product, but we are always developing what we have to make it the best it can be.

“We are always learning by doing and have a network of research and academic partners all over the world and this enables us to come up with great products which deliver solutions.

“We are planning heavily in our development team and are continuing to develop our launch plan and product road map.

“We hope the global coronavirus outbreak and the shutdown we are seeing around the world does not affect our plans too much in the short-term, but we will have to see how that develops and adapt to that as we need to.”

As a business which has helped to change traditional practices and approaches in rehab globally, one area in which Hocoma would like to push for further change is in widening patient access to its own products, and other high-tech solutions.

“At the moment, it is not a given that all patients and all clinics will have access to our products. Of course technology has its price, but we need to address that at some point.

“We need to work with clinics and insurance companies to try and find a solution here and to shape the future of rehabilitation.

“It is important to find optimal solutions which increase access to technology, to improve the quality of rehab, while looking at the cost effectiveness of such products.

“Over the next five to 10 years, there are going to be more stroke, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury patients who are needing innovative solutions and our goal is to develop more solutions which will benefit them and the therapists.

“When money and costs are involved it can often be a long journey, but we believe if all stakeholders got together to find a way of best dealing with this, together we could deliver the best rehab to patients, and this is something we would like to be involved in delivering.”

www.hocoma.com

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Landmark breakthrough in understanding Alzheimer’s

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Brain cells vulnerable to Alzheimer’s Disease have been identified for the first time, in a breakthrough scientists hope could lead to targeted treatments to boost the brain’s resilience.

It has so far remained unknown in Alzheimer’s research why some brain cells succumb to the disease years before symptoms first appear, while others seem unaffected by the degeneration surrounding them until the disease’s final stages.

Now, in a groundbreaking study, the neurons that are among the first victims of the disease –  accumulating toxic ‘tangles’ and dying off earlier than neighbouring cells – have been identified for the first time.

“We know which neurons are first to die in other neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease and ALS, but not Alzheimer’s,” says co-senior author Martin Kampmann, associate professor in the UCSF Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases.

“If we understood why these neurons are so vulnerable, maybe we could identify interventions that could make them, and the brain as a whole, more resilient to the disease.”

Alzheimer’s researchers have long studied why certain cells are more prone to producing the toxic tangles of the protein known as tau, whose spread through the brain drives widespread cell death and resulting progressive memory loss, dementia, and other symptoms.

But researchers have not looked closely at whether all cells are equally vulnerable to the toxic effects of these protein accumulations.

“The belief in the field has been that once these trash proteins are there, it’s always ‘game over’ for the cell, but our lab has been finding that that is not the case,” said Lea Grinberg, senior co-author and associate professor in the UCSF Memory and Ageing Centre.

“Some cells end up with high levels of tau tangles well into the progression of the disease, but for some reason don’t die.

“It has become a pressing question for us to understand the specific factors that make some cells selectively vulnerable to Alzheimer’s pathology, while other cells appear able to resist it for years, if not decades.”

To identify selectively vulnerable neurons, the researchers studied brain tissue from people who had died at different stages of Alzheimer’s disease, obtained from the UCSF Neurodegenerative Disease Brain Bank and the Brazilian BioBank for Ageing Studies.

The São Paulo-based biobank collects tissue samples from a broad population of deceased individuals, including many without a neurological diagnosis whose brains nevertheless show signs of very early-stage neurodegenerative disease, which is otherwise very difficult to study in humans.

The team studied tissue from ten donor brains using a technique called single-nucleus RNA sequencing, which let them group neurons based on patterns of gene activity.

In a brain region called the entorhinal cortex, one of the first areas attacked by Alzheimer’s, the researchers identified a particular subset of neurons that began to disappear very early on in the disease.

Later in the course of the disease, the researchers found, a similar group of neurons were also first to die off when degeneration reached the brain’s superior frontal gyrus.

“These findings support the view that tau buildup is a critical driver of neurodegeneration, but we also know from other data from the that not every cell that builds up these aggregates is equally susceptible,” adds researcher Kun Leng.

“Our discovery of a molecular identifier for these selectively vulnerable cells gives us the opportunity to study in detail exactly why they succumb to tau pathology, and what could be done to make them more resilient.

“This would be a totally new and much more targeted approach to developing therapies to slow or prevent the spread of Alzheimer’s disease.”

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Patients enabled to take control of recovery through new programmes

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Two new Recovery Facilitation Programmes (RFP) designed to empower people to take greater control of their recovery and enable them to better manage their conditions have been launched.

Energise Health’s six-week programmes, Energise Recovery and Energise Recovery 4Life, equip both recently-diagnosed people and those living with long-term conditions with the knowledge and skills they need to make beneficial and lasting changes.

Energise Recovery – for those at an early stage of recovery – and Energise Recovery 4Life – for those at least six months into their recovery journey – are online programmes that offer live teaching sessions on a range of topics, alongside practical activities and guided coursework.

Energise Health has been created by Nurse Pain Specialist Dr Dee Burrows and Occupational Therapist Victoria Collins, who brought together years of expertise to develop these programmes, which they have seen, from their own experiences, are badly needed.

“The concept came from a really challenging case we were both working on, where we realised that had this particular client been given access to something like this at an early stage in their recovery, it would have prevented so many secondary complications,” says Victoria.

The programmes – devised over 18 months, in consultation with experts in the field – aim to educate participants in how to tackle and improve issues around pain, stress, depression, poor sleep and lack of confidence in daily activity. Participants are shown how to adopt a bespoke range of strategies that they can incorporate into their daily lives to help them manage.

Although the business launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, unlike many initiatives that were taken online out of necessity, Energise Recovery and Energise Recovery 4Life were intentionally developed as online programmes.

“We designed this to be online as we wanted a facilitated group-based programme,” says Dee.

“And when you are supporting people who are living with injuries or conditions, their recovery is best facilitated if they have the energy to spend on it, rather than exhausting themselves through travel. It is also a more environmentally friendly model, which is important to both of us.

“We can have people from across the country, whether Edinburgh, Leeds, or Cornwall coming together in a way that will benefit them individually and collectively. We look forward to sharing it with more people.”

Energise Recovery and Energise Recovery 4Life introduce participants to a range of strategies from mindfulness to Tai Chi, belly breathing to sleep management, diet to exercise and connecting with others, all backed by a comprehensive handbook and activity diary.

“We are enabling people to try a range of different strategies – all of which have been carefully chosen for this purpose, determine which ones they want to pursue and learn how to integrate them into their daily routine,” says Victoria.

“We enable them to develop a personalised toolkit, with strategies to manage their conditions.  Participants can develop their own script. We are empowering them to find out what works for them.”

In the six-month pilot of both programmes, engagement levels were 100 per cent in terms of both session attendance and self-reporting, with ongoing success seen in terms of individual outcomes. On average, participants started their programme with 3.75 self-management strategies, rising to 26.25 at programme completion.

“What we do is based on the principles of hope, engagement, support and self-management, and the desire to change is something we look for when accepting participants,” says Dee.

Victoria says: “The programmes are a foundation. We provide high quality resources and links for people to learn more and develop if they wish, and, through our teaching, explain key components and how they might be applied. It is bitesize and digestible.

“We are enabling people to enhance their ability to self-manage. By adopting the strategies into their lives, we have already seen how this can give individuals hope for the future and be of great benefit to their mental, social and physical wellbeing.”

Dee adds: “While the early stage Energise Recovery Programme will always give the best possible chance of recovery, Energise Recovery 4Life can be equally beneficial for those with long-term conditions, including, for instance, Long Covid

“We have noticed that some participants do better with their clinical interventions when they have completed the Programme as a foundation and have a toolkit of strategies in place. It can also, however, work well in tandem with, or after clinical interventions.”

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Concussion substitutions approved in football – but move ‘doesn’t go far enough’

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Charity Headway argue that the move still does not go far enough

Years of campaigning for concussion substitutions to be introduced into football look set to deliver some success, with Premier League clubs preparing to adopt the policy to help address the need to protect players from the effects of head injury.

In a trial move, expected to take effect from fixtures next week, teams can use up to two substitutes in the event of head injuries, which will be in addition to the usual three substitutions that can be made in a normal match.

The substitutions – which will be permanent and not for 10-minute durations as in rugby, to allow for players to leave the pitch for medical assessment and return if deemed able – are expected to be approved at a meeting of the Premier League tomorrow.

Pressure has been mounting on football to address the issue of players suffering concussion and head injuries during matches, with on-pitch medics having to make decisions in three minutes on a player’s ability to continue, returning him to the pitch, or else removing him from the match completely.

The Premier League will become the first league to adopt concussion substitutes, and the finer details are currently being agreed with FIFA ahead of their expected introduction in a matter of days.

However, brain injury charity Headway argue that the move still does not go far enough in awarding protection to players, and argued permanent substitutions are not the way forward.

“We’ve been pushing for many years to bring football up to date with other sports in terms of concussion substitutes, but this plan involves permanent substitutes rather than concussion substitutes,” deputy chief executive Luke Griggs tells NR Times.

“So in that sense, it’s a bit disappointing.

“The FA chief executive said in December they needed to explain why permanent substitutes are better than temporary substitutes in this situation, but that has not happened.”

While it is a step forward that players are being protected, say Headway, the 10-minute alternative that works in sports like rugby has much greater benefits.

“In sounds great that football are introducing this measure which has been needed for a long time, but in practice, the medical assessment of the player is still going to have to be made in that three minute window on the pitch, rather than in the quiet confines of the dressing room if you had ten minutes,” says Luke.

“You also need a degree of honesty from the players in being able to assess them properly, and for them to say they feel nauseous and have blurred vision after a collision. If they know they are going to be taken off for the whole match, rather than the potential to return after ten minutes, then they might not want to be so honest.

“Of course we realise that even in ten minutes some symptoms may not present themselves, and it could be 24 hours later or maybe longer, ten minutes off the pitch to make an assessment is an awful lot better than three minutes on it.”

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