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Optimizing exoskeleton assistance to improve walking speed and energy economy for older adults.

BACKGROUND: Walking speed and energy economy tend to decline with age. Lower-limb exoskeletons have demonstrated potential to improve either measure, but primarily in studies conducted on healthy younger adults. Promising techniques like optimization of exoskeleton assistance have yet to be tested with older populations, while speed and energy consumption have yet to be simultaneously optimized for any population.

METHODS: We investigated the effectiveness of human-in-the-loop optimization of ankle exoskeletons with older adults. Ten healthy adults > 65 years of age (5 females; mean age: 72 ± 3 yrs) participated in approximately 240 min of training and optimization with tethered ankle exoskeletons on a self-paced treadmill. Multi-objective human-in-the-loop optimization was used to identify assistive ankle plantarflexion torque patterns that simultaneously improved self-selected walking speed and metabolic rate. The effects of optimized exoskeleton assistance were evaluated in separate trials.

RESULTS: Optimized exoskeleton assistance improved walking performance for older adults. Both objectives were simultaneously improved; self-selected walking speed increased by 8% (0.10 m/s; p = 0.001) and metabolic rate decreased by 19% (p = 0.007), resulting in a 25% decrease in energetic cost of transport (p = 8e-4) compared to walking with exoskeletons applying zero torque. Compared to younger participants in studies optimizing a single objective, our participants required lower exoskeleton torques, experienced smaller improvements in energy use, and required more time for motor adaptation.

CONCLUSIONS: Our results confirm that exoskeleton assistance can improve walking performance for older adults and show that multiple objectives can be simultaneously addressed through human-in-the-loop optimization.

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