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Virginia Tech professor brings Slip Simulator to Inova Lansdowne

It may be embarrassing. Even painful. And for some, deadly.

Everyone falls.

But what if your brain could be re-trained to prevent such an accident? What if, one day, falling is a thing of the past?

Virginia Tech professor Thurmon Lockhart is working toward such a feat, developing the Slip Simulator that helps to re-train individuals how to walk to avoid falling.

The technology, developed at Virginia Tech's Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, is now available at Inova Hospital's Lansdowne campus.

The simulator is the first of its kind in the D.C. metro area.

The simulator is a large, parallel framework that a person walks under, while a computer-controlled, linoleum-covered floor shifts, causing the walker to lose his footing. Rather than fall, the person is harnessed to the frame’s top section. The walker instinctively learns to catch himself, Lockhart said.

“We were trying to find out why older people fall more than younger people. At that time, we had some ideas but we didn't quite know what the mechanisms were. So then we had to develop something like this where we could actually let them slip and fall,” Lockhart said.

The study started about eight years ago when workers with the United Parcel Service came to Virginia Tech as part of a new driver training program.

The average UPS delivery driver makes more than 100 deliveries each day, sometimes in slippery conditions. The danger of falling is high for these workers.

So after testing between 200 and 300 people on the Slip Simulator, Lockhart began to see an emerging pattern.
“They may slip one time. The second time around it's very hard for them to slip,” Lockhart said. “They're learning is very quick and it's almost innate. We saw that with the very, very frail elderly as well as the young individuals.”

After Lockhart began his work with UPS about 20 companies across the country have gone through similar training to help avoid worker injury and money lost due to workplace injuries.

Lockhart said during the study he began to notice that after an individual slips, they modify their gait – a proactive response that causes them to either walk slower or step lighter.

But more importantly, his team saw a reactive response, he said.

A fall can be described in various stages: Initiation, detection and reactive recovery.

In the initiation phase, an individual starts to slip, Lockhart said.

“You step on the banana peel. So we're asking, are elderly individuals falling because of that initiating condition or is it because of some type of a degradating sensing mechanism such that they're not detecting this information or they access all this information but they do not have muscular skeletal integrity to counterbalance.”

“We tested this hypothesis and found out that detection and recovery is where they're failing,” he said.

“We're concentrating our effort in predicting who are the fallers and non-fallers using state-of-the-art systems. We developed an app that will actually measure balance, step mobility, walking characteristics and sway and velocity,” Lockhart said. “Then it gives you this nice little nifty app that shows you how unstable you are.”

Using all this information, Lockhart and his team set out to train those prone to falling to not fall.

“Which way is the best when going through certain surfaces? Well you can't do that with a power point. A slip simulator you can,” Lockhart said.


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