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Bionics and exoskeletons: 3 Aussie health technologies changing lives

We reveal three new innovations set to advance our health

A woman monitors as a person uses bionics for rehabilitation
A woman monitors as a person uses bionics for rehabilitation

Bionics brings together biology, medicine and engineering to create innovative solutions that improve the lives of people living with chronic and debilitating conditions.

Bionics have been improving the lives of humans as far back as early last century. For example, the iron lung was invented in 1928 to allow folk suffering from polio to breathe, and in 1973, the cochlear implant began bringing varying degrees of hearing to the totally deaf. Bionics have also brought us prosthetic limbs and artificial eyes, among other life changing medical creations.

Here are three new innovations set to advance human health and wellbeing in the near future.

1. HELLEN – the exoskeleton

More than one-third of people who survive a stroke or head injury need help walking and some will never regain the ability to stand without assistance. Literally giving rise to mankind, Hunter’s Exoskeleton for Lower Limb Exercise and Neuro-rehabilitation (otherwise known as HELLEN) enables stroke survivors and people with acquired brain injuries who have lost the ability to stand or walk to do so.

How? It's a purpose-built, bionic, hands-free, self-supporting rehabilitation exoskeleton that fits around the lower body with joints that align with the wearer’s joints and is operated by a joystick control. It supports the wearer’s body weight while moving through a series of rehabilitation exercises that would have previously been carried out with the assistance of rehabilitation workers. The exercises would otherwise not be physically possible for therapists to deliver in a session or they would take multiple therapists to achieve safely, while being physically demanding.

Developed by nib foundation partner and national charity, the Australian Institute of Neuro-Rehabilitation (AINRehab), HELLEN recently kicked off its world-first clinical trial at the University of Newcastle.


2. The ‘fit-bit’ for tracking and predicting epilepsy seizures

One of the most common brain disorders worldwide, epilepsy affects over 250,000 Australians.

To help doctors better diagnose patients, Bionics Institute researchers and neurologist Professor Mark Cook developed a small implantable device dubbed Minder™. Essentially, the tiny device is placed just under the skin on the scalp and records brainwaves, sending detailed data on seizure activity and frequency over an extended period of time. Clinicians can then use this data to predict the likelihood of future seizures and monitor the effectiveness of the wearer’s treatment plan, medications and dosage.

Researchers also hope this detailed data will help further research and development into new treatments – a third of Aussies living with epilepsy cannot be properly treated with current medications or surgery.

On a more personal level, they hope to create a future version of the device capable of warning the wearer of the likelihood of impending seizure events calculated by past patterns and current brain activity. This means people will be able to plan their activities accordingly, for example, they can avoid high-risk activities when there is a high risk of a seizure.

3. Non-drug therapy to ease the pain of inflammatory bowel disease

Affecting approximately 61,000 Aussies, inflammatory bowel disease - including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis - is a debilitating condition. To add to the considerable discomfort created by the disease, current treatments often come with unpleasant side effects.

Which is why the Bionics Institute is involved in a collaborative project creating a device that constantly monitors the degree of inflammation in the bowel, detecting gut inflammation and stimulating the vagus nerve with electrical impulses to provide relief. Personalised to each wearer, the timing and pattern of stimulation will automatically adjust to suit the degree of inflammation in the gut.

The device is expected to commence human clinical trials by the end of 2019.

To find out more about bionics, upcoming trials or to support the work done in this area, check out the Bionics Institute.

Interested in the future of health? Check out our article: 5 life-changing technologies for food allergies.