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‘World first’ robotic back therapist launches on UK market

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Engineer-turned-physiotherapist Chongsu Lee is on a mission: to transform the lives of the estimated 600 million people globally at any one time living with chronic back pain.

It’s a bold goal. But one the 45-year-old former Hyundai employee believes he has hit.

He has launched a world health-tech first into the UK market: BackHug. A robotic therapist about the size of a coffee table with 26 mechanical fingers to loosen stiff joints in the back, shoulder blades, and neck, Mr Lee says the device could have a life-changing impact on those suffering from long-term back pain, as well as neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and the after-effects of a stroke.

BackHug’s human-sized fingers adapt to individual users’ unique back curvature and measure back tension via proprietary ‘Spinemap’ technology. This innovative application has been specially developed to objectively monitor a person’s back tension during therapy sessions and measure how it changes over time.

The device – whose underlying technology has been inspired by a similar concept used in agriculture where advanced robotic arms carefully pick fruit without causing damage – offers 2,000-plus personalised treatment options as well as in-app physio consultations.

Users, who can control BackHug via their smartphone, can enjoy 20 to 60-minute therapy sessions in the comfort of their own home or workplace. After just 20 minutes of using BackHug, Spinemap is able to analyse the data and produce a report comparing back tension levels from before and after the session.

The AI-powered apparatus developed and manufactured in Scotland, is being made available by subscription to companies for workplace use, as well as to private individuals. It costs £269 a month for businesses for a 12-month contract, and £99 for a year’s home subscription, with the option to buy BackHug outright for £4,250.

But for those nervous about entering into what at first glance seems like a costly ongoing financial commitment – especially if they’ve tried other back pain relief devices to no avail – Mr Lee offers a 30-day BackHug trial. “If it works, you can keep it and enjoy long-lasting relief from aches and pains; if it doesn’t you can send it back for free,” he said. “In the meantime, you will have benefitted from personalised back therapy on demand in your own home or workplace for a month.”

Eight years in the making, BackHug is fulfilling Mr Lee’s dream of helping people not only find a solution to the root cause of their illness, but to boost productivity in the workforce. and offer an affordable alternative to those on waiting lists or who need regular physiotherapy appointments.

Chongsu Lee working on the BackHug

New research has revealed that in the UK alone, 88% of people say they suffer from some form of back problem, with 44% of workers having taken sick leave as a result of back pain and stiffness, costing the economy an estimated £10bn. As such, BackHug’s impact could be profound.

The device has been borne out of Mr Lee’s own serious health issues as a child growing up in his native South Korea.

Around the age of 10 he contracted acute pancreatitis, a potentially life-threatening gastrointestinal disorder where the pancreas becomes inflamed.

Many years of largely unsuccessful medical treatment followed.

Fearing he would never be able to rid himself of the debilitating condition, Mr Lee took matters into his own hands during his first year at Hanyang University in Seoul, where he was studying for a degree in industrial engineering.

He went on what he calls his “own journey”. He radically changed his diet, began exercising and taking mindfulness sessions, learnt massage, and started practicing Korean Tai Chi, an ancient martial art that has been used for more than 5,000 years to maintain a healthy mind and body, especially after injury or illness.

Soon, he began seeing a marked improvement in his health.

Reflecting on that time, he told Agetech World: “My digestive system was quite awful. Doctors at the time said they could not operate because I was still growing. My parents thought I was going to die, and they still say that to this day.

“I spent days and weeks in hospital many times. I took medication for almost 10 years every day. I had to skip school for days and weeks.

“Then in my first year at university, I discovered the importance of a diet that was good for my digestive system, and also of regular exercise, and specifically, Korean Tai Chi.

“It took me several years to fully recover, but now I am thankfully very fit and healthy and have been for the past 20 years.”

BackHug has 26 mechanical fingers to loosen stiff joints in the back

Following university he landed a job as an engineer with Hyundai, and travelled the globe helping set up manufacturing facilities as the South Korean-based car company invested heavily in its vehicles’ quality, design, production, and long-term research.

But two years into the job, Mr Lee decided to leave Hyundai to pursue his dream of becoming a physiotherapist halfway across the world in Edinburgh, a city he had been drawn to whilst backpacking around Europe.

He had read an autobiography penned by an airline pilot who, despite suffering serious eye issues, relentlessly pursued his dream of taking to the skies. “It made me decide that I was going to do something very meaningful to me that was health-related. I had learnt therapeutic massage from one of the best massage masters in Korea. It had touched me deeply.

“A year after I read this book, I decided to leave my job at Hyundai and head for Scotland.”

After gaining an MSc in physiotherapy from Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Mr Lee joined Dunfermline Athletic Football Club as a physio. In parallel, he opened his own practice where he treated many MS and Parkinson’s disease patients suffering from chronic back pain.

He soon began to appreciate that the most effective manual physiotherapy to help people with aches, back pain, and headaches, was spine joint mobilisation. “This effectively releases the stiffness in the joints in the back and other parts of the body,” he said. “But it is painful and physically demanding for the therapist to keep doing it.

“If you are seeing eight to 10 people a day and using this method, it is very exhausting.”

Once an engineer, always an engineer, however. Worn out with the effort of pressing his own thumbs into patients’ back joints to help relieve their pain, Mr Lee, perhaps naively, decided to design a machine that could replace his hands.

Spurred on by the encouragement of a friend, the first BackHug prototype – which Mr Lee still carries around in the boot of his car – was made using parts he bought from his local B&Q DIY store. “I bought nuts and bolts and MDF etc, and started putting the first BackHug together,” he said with a laugh.

“If I knew what I was going to go through, I’m not sure I would have started. When I began that first one, I thought I was going to produce a good machine in the next six months, not knowing it was going to take eight years.

“But the one that we are rolling out now in the UK, that is the one I know really works. It speaks for itself.”

BackHug is a robotic therapist about the size of a coffee table

Mr Lee admitted that if he hadn’t had his engineering background it is unlikely he would have been able to develop BackHug and produce the hundreds of specialised parts needed.

“There are around 200 different components, more than 100 of which are custom designed,” he stated. “Every one of those custom-made components has been through between 30 and 100 iterations. That is why it took so long to get to a product that really works.”

The current BackHug is the fourth version. Two hundred units have been manufactured in Dunfermline with around 1,000 planned for the next run.

Mr Lee has already had interest from abroad and is continually looking for ways BackHug can be improved. He is working with experts at Edinburgh University and a technology firm to see what new developments can be incorporated into the machine.

He is keen to emphasise that BackHug is not a massage chair and believes his invention is unique. Massage chairs, he explained, offer only superficial, short-lived, and localised muscle therapy, whilst BackHug has been designed to treat the joints in the back.

Mr Lee said he is currently in “advanced talks” with two NHS trusts who are looking to use BackHug for their staff. Another trust is interested in running a clinical trial.

But he isn’t making any medical claims. “BackHug is not yet a medical device. We are marketing it as a household massage tool. We are not in a position to claim any specific medical symptom improvements.

“But if you look at the picture, what people over the ages of 40, 50, 60 and 70 are going through in the human body physiologically, and particularly if you add in any conditions such as Parkinson’s or a stroke to that ageing process, it is well documented that releasing joint stiffness in the back and helping free joints in the back and the shoulder blades, can bring greater quality of life in terms of mobility and pain relief.”

Moving forward, Mr Lee is hopeful of gaining medical accreditation, especially as the US Food and Drug Administration classes massage equipment as a medical device.

He said: “With one in five people stuck on health care waiting lists and saying they can’t afford multiple private physiotherapy sessions a month, BackHug is the future of back therapy by making it more accessible and affordable to treat back problems.”

He added: “It is the most effective way to loosen stiff joints, which is the most effective way to sustainably fix back aches and related issues, like sore thighs, headaches, Achilles tendonitis and tennis elbow.”

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On a mission to show that hearing loss is not inevitable

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The world’s largest investigation into the effectiveness of hearing training kicks off this week – as part of a movement to prove that hearing loss is not an inevitable part of ageing.

The research project aims to attract a minimum of 10,000 participants to better understand how hearing training impacts auditory processing skills like speech comprehension and the ability to locate where sounds are coming from.

Researchers are interested in the impact of hearing training on users who start training with different hearing ability levels, as well as training adherence in groups with different attitudes to smartphone technology.

Their aim is to find new ways to deliver and improve auditory training at scale and for a wider range of hearing skills; and to measure factors which influence training engagement.

The research is led by health tech firm Eargym. Co-founder Andy Shanks says:  Contrary to popular belief, hearing loss is not an inevitable consequence of ageing. We can take steps to improve and protect our hearing throughout our lives, yet preventative measures like hearing training have traditionally been under-researched.

“Our data shows the transformative impact hearing training can have on our ability to process sounds. Now, we want to deepen and widen our research and use our platform to make hearing training even more effective and accessible. Imagine improving and maintaining your hearing by up to 20% or more: it could make a big difference to the lives of so many people.”

The games on the Eargym app include a “busy barista” exercise, where users must discern speech over a cafe’s bustling background noise; and a “sound seeking” exercise, where users make their way through forests, jungles and oceans to locate the sources of different sounds. Each game is designed to be immersive and to help users practise specific auditory processing skills regularly.

Eargym was set up by former NHS CEO Amanda Philpott and DJ Andy Shanks in 2020, after they were both diagnosed with hearing loss. Amanda has moderate age related hearing loss, whilst Andy has “notch” or noise-induced hearing loss due to DJ-ing. Both found hearing loss isolating and it impacted their ability to socialise and communicate. They created eargym to empower others to better understand their hearing health and take proactive steps to protect it.

Hearing loss currently affects 18 million adults in the UK, with around one billion young people at risk of developing hearing loss due to increased use of headphones. Hearing loss is closely associated with increased dementia risk. Despite this, people wait an average ten years before seeking help for hearing loss.

Eargym plans to publish the findings of its research in early 2025.

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Interview: Exploring electrical stimulation for Parkinson’s disease

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The STEPS II study is investigating functional electrical stimulation (FES) in people with Parkinson’s disease to help improve their walking. Dr Paul Taylor, co-founder and Clinical Director of Odstock Medical Ltd (OML), spoke to Agetech World to tell us more.

Bradykinesia – slowness of movement which can lead to difficulty walking – affects many people living with Parkinson’s disease. The symptom can cause Parkinson’s patients to walk or move slowly, increasing the risk of falls, leading to a reduced quality of life and an increased dependence on others. 

Funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research, sponsored by Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust, and managed by the University of Plymouth’s Peninsula Clinical Trials Unit, the STEPS II study is exploring the use of an FES device in Parkinson’s patients to help improve bradykinesia. 

The FES device, which has been pioneered by Salisbury researchers as a drop foot treatment for stroke and MS patients, is attached to the patient’s leg and produces small electrical impulses that improve movement.

“If you have Bradykinesia you’re moving slowly. The predominant treatment for Parkinson’s is medication and these can be very effective, but they have the problem of not working all the time,” explains Taylor, co-founder of Odstock Medical Ltd, a company owned by Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust.

”The effects of the drugs will wear off and after a period of time they become less effective, so, there’s a need for improvement.”

Taylor explains that deep brain stimulators are currently available, however, they are very invasive, expensive and can be risky. 

“We’re trying to do something which is a bit simpler and cheaper, which may possibly be able to help people at an earlier stage of Parkinson’s,” Taylor says.

“We’re stimulating the common peroneal nerve, which is the nerve that goes down the leg to the muscles, using a device called a drop foot stimulator. The device is commonly used for stroke and multiple sclerosis.”

A small feasibility study has already been conducted, which showed that FES can help patients walk faster and reduce some symptoms of Parkinson’s. 

In the STEPS II study, researchers hope to confirm the long-term effects of FES on walking speed and daily life with 234 participants at sites across Salisbury, Birmingham, Prestwick, Leeds, Swansea and Carlisle.

Taylor continues: “Our original idea was that we could use electrical stimulation to overcome freezing – which is the effect where people with Parkinson’s will stop walking, particularly when they come to doorways or very narrow areas. It’s to do with the processing of information from the outside world. 

“We wanted to see if we could use electrical stimulation to overcome that freezing and, to a certain extent, we did find that is the case for some patients, but more commonly and with a greater number of patients FES affected bradykinesia – speeding up their movement and helping with more effective walking.”

For the STEPS II study, participants will be randomised into a care as normal group, or a care as normal plus FES group. They will use the stimulator if they are in the FES group for 18 weeks, then the stimulator is taken away, with patients followed up one month later to see if the effects are continued.

Measurements of walking speed and movement will be analysed, along with sensory perception, balance, coordination, muscle strength, as well as secondary effects such as how the device impacts daily living and quality of life.

OML has established clinics around the country with trained therapists where the device will be used if the study is successful. 

“There’s a network of clinics already experienced in using the treatment so we plan to reach those clinics to include Parkinson’s patients in their cohorts,” says Taylor. “Then we’ll work with our contacts to see if we can get it overseas as well.”

OML is currently recruiting participants for the study, to find out more please visit: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/research/penctu/steps-2 

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Quit Googling to stave off dementia onset, expert urges

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Resisting the temptation to search the web for information that could otherwise be recalled be exercising your brain could help to reduce the risk of dementia.

That is according to Canadian academic Professor Mohamed I. Elmasry who believes simple daily habits such as afternoon naps, memory ‘workouts’ and not reaching for a smartphone can increase the odds of healthy aging.

His new book, iMind: Artificial and Real Intelligence, says the focus has shifted too far away from RI (natural, or real) intelligence in favour of AI (machine, or artificial) intelligence. Elmasry instead calls us to nurture our human mind which, like smartphones, has ‘hardware’, ‘software’ and ‘apps’ but is many times more powerful – and will last much longer with the right care.

Professor Elmasry, an internationally recognised expert in microchip design and AI, was inspired to write the book after the death of his brother-in-law from Alzheimer’s and others very close to him, including his mother, from other forms of dementia.

Although he says that smart devices are ‘getting smarter all the time’, he argues in iMind that none comes close to ‘duplicating the capacity, storage, longevity, energy efficiency, or self-healing capabilities of the original human brain-mind’.

He writes that: “The useful life expectancy for current smartphones is around 10 years, while a healthy brain-mind inside a healthy human body can live for 100 years or longer.

“Your brain-mind is the highest-value asset you have, or will ever have. Increase its potential and longevity by caring for it early in life, keeping it and your body healthy so it can continue to develop.

“Humans can intentionally develop and test their memories by playing ‘brain games,’ or performing daily brain exercises. You can’t exercise your smartphone’s memory to make it last longer or encourage it to perform at a higher level.”

In iMind: Artificial and Real Intelligence Professor Elmasry shares an anecdote about his grandchildren having to use the search engine on their smartphones to name Cuba’s capital—they had just spent a week in the country with their parents.

The story illustrates how young people have come to rely on AI smartphone apps instead of using their real intelligence (RI), he says, adding: “A healthy memory goes hand-in-hand with real intelligence. Our memory simply can’t reach its full potential without RI.”

Published by Routledge, iMind: Artificial and Real Intelligence includes extensive background on the history of microchip design, machine learning and AI and their role in smartphones and other technology.

The book also explains how both AI and human intelligence really work, and how brain function links the mind and memory. It compares the human mind and brain function with that of smartphones, ChatGPT and other AI-based systems.

Drawing on comprehensive existing research, iMind aims to narrow the knowledge gap between real and artificial intelligence, to address the current controversy around AI, and to inspire researchers to find new treatments for Alzheimer’s, other neurodegenerative conditions and cancer.

It argues that current or even planned AI cannot match the capabilities of the human brain-mind for speed, accuracy, storage capacity and other functions. Healthy aging, Professor Elmasry notes, is as important as climate change but doesn’t attract a fraction of the publicity.

He calls for policymakers to adopt a series of key reforms to promote healthy aging. Among such changes, he suggests that bingo halls could transition from their sedentary entertainment function to become active and stimulating learning centers.

As well as napping to refresh our memories and other brain and body functions, he also outlines a series of practical tips to boost brain power and enhance our RI (Real Intelligence).

These include building up ‘associative’ memory – the brain’s ‘dictionary of meaning’ where it attaches new information to what it already knows. Try reading a book aloud, using all of your senses instead of going on autopilot and turning daily encounters into fully-lived experiences.

Other techniques include integrating a day for true rest into the week, reviewing your lifestyle as early as your 20s or 30s, adopting a healthy diet, and eliminating or radically moderating alcohol consumption to reduce the risk of dementia.

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