Published: 31 March 2016
Clinical scores for evaluating walking skills with lower limb exoskeletons are often based on a single variable, such as distance walked or speed, even in cases where a host of features are measured. We investigated how to combine multiple features such that the resulting score has high discriminatory power, in particular with few patients. A new score is introduced that allows quantifying the walking ability of patients with spinal cord injury when using a powered exoskeleton.
Four spinal cord injury patients were trained to walk over ground with the ReWalk™ exoskeleton. Body accelerations during use of the device were recorded by a wearable accelerometer and 4 features to evaluate walking skills were computed. The new score is the Gaussian naïve Bayes surprise, which evaluates patients relative to the features’ distribution measured in 7 expert users of the ReWalk™. We compared our score based on all the features with a standard outcome measure, which is based on number of steps only.
All 4 patients improved over the course of training, as their scores trended towards the expert users’ scores. The combined score (Gaussian naïve surprise) was considerably more discriminative than the one using only walked distance (steps). At the end of training, 3 out of 4 patients were significantly different from the experts, according to the combined score (p < .001, Wilcoxon Signed-Rank Test). In contrast, all but one patient were scored as experts when number of steps was the only feature.
Integrating multiple features could provide a more robust metric to measure patients’ skills while they learn to walk with a robotic exoskeleton. Testing this approach with other features and more subjects remains as future work.
Clinical scores of walking ability are crucial in many areas of physical rehabilitation to assess the efficacy of a therapeutic intervention or an assistive device, as well as to discriminate the ability between different patients [1, 2]. One domain of interest is evaluating functional ambulation in individuals who suffered a spinal cord injury (SCI). Even though many outcome measures target the SCI population [3, 4], currently there exist no specific measures targeting the ability of a patient to use a lower limb robotic exoskeleton to walk overground and achieve functional ambulation.
Lower limb exoskeletons are bilateral powered orthoses designed to provide assistance for sit-to-stand and for walking and, in some cases, to assist lower extremity function in individuals with incomplete or complete SCI [5–8]. Currently, several exoskeletons are transitioning from purely research and rehabilitation devices to personal mobility systems that individuals with SCI could use to walk inside their home and in their communities [9, 10]. A paradigmatic case is the ReWalk™, which has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to be sold to individuals with SCI as a take-home personal mobility device.
Quantitative clinical assessment of exoskeletons is fundamental to evaluate their safety and effectiveness when used by individuals with disabilities. Specifically, individuals with complete SCI, who aim at taking an exoskeleton home as a personal mobility device, require an intensive training protocol to become independent users. Such training is typically delivered in a clinical setting and therefore clinicians need a robust metric to evaluate if a patient has reached a level of ability and expertise to independently use the device at home and in the community. Obtaining a robust index of the patients’ walking skills with an exoskeleton could also be used to inform health insurance companies about the actual improvements in functional mobility for potential reimbursement. This point is crucial as the cost of these devices is extremely high and therefore any support funding has to be justified.
The primary clinical outcome measures currently used to assess functional ambulation with exoskeletons are the 6-Minute-Walk-Test (6MWT) and the Ten-Meter-Walk-Test (10mWT) [11, 12]. These two tests measure, respectively, the distance walked in six minutes and the time to walk over a distance of 10 m, while walking at a constant speed. Despite being validated in spinal cord injury populations , it is questionable whether these measures are sufficient to fully evaluate a patient skill and the device efficiency. Indeed, other studies have measured additional features to characterize walking skills with robotic exoskeletons.
Specifically, amongst the features quantified there are: the kinematics of the hip, knee and ankle joints in patients trained to use the ReWalk™ , as recorded via a motion capture system; the exertion level based on the heart rate normalized to the walking speed (i.e. physiological cost index)  and the oxygen uptake [16, 17]. Other metrics used include the variation in vertical and lateral amplitude of the head motion , ground reaction forces analysis  and the ability to maintain eye contact to assess cognitive effort . Even when multiple features were measured, each study reports the values of each feature individually to characterize functional ambulation with exoskeletons. Therefore it is unclear how each feature contributes to the overall expertise of a subject. Furthermore, some of the captured features require complex and expensive lab equipment, commonly seen only in large hospitals and university settings.
In the current study, we propose to combine multiple features of walking performance by estimating their probability distribution over a set of expert users who have been previously trained extensively to use the exoskeleton. New participants are then scored based on how well their features fit the experts’ probability distribution. Building on this principle, we define a new score to quantify walking ability with exoskeletons: the Gaussian Naïve Bayes surprise. The term surprise is derived from information theory and represents the amount of unexpected information provided by an event . We apply our score to quantify the walking skills of four individuals with complete SCI, as they are trained to use the ReWalk™ exoskeleton. Four features are computed from the trunk accelerations, which are recorded using a commercial wearable accelerometer while subjects perform a 6MWT with the exoskeleton. We estimate the parameters of the features probability distribution from seven expert subjects (1 SCI and 6 able-bodied) that received extensive prior training with the device, and compute the Gaussian naïve Bayes surprise of the four SCI participants with respect to the experts. The score based on all four features is compared with one based only on number of steps (an equivalent of distance walked), in terms of the separation between experts and patients that is yielded by the two indices.