Becoming unsteady on your feet is a natural part of aging. It can also be caused by a stroke or diseases like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis. If you are one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who can walk, but are afraid of falling, a new Israeli invention that was developed from NASA science might be just the thing to get your toes tapping, with no fear of losing your balance.
The Gaitaid device was developed by Medigait, a company founded in 2008 by Prof. Yoram Baram from the Technion Israel Institute of Science. It was perfected during a period of research that lasted 11 years, some of which was commissioned by NASA to improve helicopter navigation.
When Baram first learned that tiled floors can help people who are unsteady on their feet to improve their step, he merged that information with his NASA research and the idea for Gaitaid was born.
Baram’s Gaitaid device is a “virtual walker” that consists of a small lightweight control unit and a set of high-tech goggles. A wearer dons the goggles, clips the control unit onto a belt or the waistband of a pair of pants and starts to walk. Simple as that.
Scientific studies have measured a 20 to 30 percent improvement in gait performance from wearing the device. Wearers improve their stride length, and their rhythm, helping them to restore their normal walking ability.
Rewire your brain with sensory feedback
The goggles look similar to those worn in the Matrix movie starring Keanu Reeves. They serve as a training tool that helps people with walking problems to plant their feet more firmly on the ground. The goggles superimpose a tiled floor on the wearer’s view of the floor, while an audio accompaniment lets a person “hear” their steps.
“The goggles are the visual part of it which is just for training, but it does have an audio part as well and this can be used online,” says Baram. “A person disconnects the visual part, the glasses, and just connects a pair of earphones to get audio feedback,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
“People with such disabilities and walking disorders are helped a lot by sensory feedback,” he says, explaining that it’s not only the eyes that help a person to walk. While feeling the foot touch the ground is part of the process, there are feedback mechanisms in the brain that rely on a number of senses working in tandem to make smooth walking possible.
When worn for about 20 minutes a day, the goggles can rewire your brain. “We are providing an auditory and visual [experience] most close to the mid brain where the motor abilities are regulated and in some cases damaged,” says Baram. “By providing sensory feedback we are enhancing regular walking and stability.”
From grounded to free and roaming
Margarita from the US bought a Gaitaid device for her husband. She describes its effect: “He was in a very bad condition where he could barely walk and was very afraid of walking. Now what has happened is that he is able to do much better walking. He is able to go down stairs and get the mail by himself.
“It’s giving him mobility inside our apartment where mostly he used to be grounded and only walk to the bathroom. Now he is free and is roaming around our place,” she adds.
With an FDA seal of approval and a US distributor, you can buy a Gaitaid for about $2,000 or rent one to own over time, which costs slightly more.
Clinical trials testing the efficacy of the device were conducted at centers in the US and Israel, and published papers in scientific studies appearing in journals such as Neurology have demonstrated the efficacy of Gaitaid in improving walking ability.
For grandparents who like the idea of looking like they’ve stepped out of a sci-fi film, take note. According to Baram, the goggles should be worn for training purposes only: “The idea is that the patient imagines stepping on a tiled floor. The brain makes the connection.”
Giant steps are still ahead
Baram recounts that the technology for Gaitaid is based on a navigation device for helicopters that was developed to detect if a helicopter flies too close to a building or a tree, and if so, to sound an alarm. Until now, the research was never used for practical applications.
In addition to promoting Gaitaid, Baram is also researching machine learning and biological learning, and the neuroscience and processes in the brain that enable devices like Gaitaid to work.
Baram and his son run the Israel-based Medigate out of Haifa. While only a hundred or so devices have been sold to date, Baram is confident that with an investor or strategic partner Gaitaid could be more affordable and accessible to many more people.