UK scientists are to investigate whether wearable robots could help people with multiple sclerosis (MS) get more exercise.

The MS Society has committed to raising nearly £40,000 to support Dr Siva Nair and his team at Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, who will examine how powered exoskeletons – or robotic suits – might improve physical fitness in people with mobility issues caused by MS.

MS damages nerves in your body and makes it harder to do everyday things like walk, talk, eat and think. Research suggests people with MS should do moderate exercise for 30 minutes, three times a week. But many find this difficult due to symptoms caused by the condition.

Dr Nair said:

“We all know how important exercise is. A lack of it can cause heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and depression. So we need to find a way to make it easier for people with advanced MS to take part in physical activity. Robotics is the natural step forward. By embracing this technology we are giving people who can’t walk the chance to exercise like everyone else.

“We understand it’s not every day you see someone in a robot suit, and society might need to adjust to such a weird and wonderful sight. That’s why we’re also going to be observing the personal implications of keeping fit in this way – including whether the person wearing the exoskeleton feels it’s an accepted way to exercise.”

Sallyanne Kenny, 55, from Swinton in Rotherham, lives with the primary progressive form of MS. Diagnosed in 2017, one of her main symptoms is foot drop, and she can’t walk in a straight line. She uses a stick and a wheelchair for long distances.

She said:

“Before my MS I used to be so active. I went out dancing with my husband every weekend! I loved walking and swimming too, but haven’t been able to do anything like that for years. Even taking the dog out can be upsetting, because I see my husband and the dog running along and I just can’t do that.

“Research like this is really important because stuck in the house, you have no quality of life. You end up feeling like a blooming robot anyway! It’s beyond frustrating and I’d love to feel more energised. If there was a way for me to exercise I’d jump at the chance.”

The project is one of 13 in a £1.3 million investment from the MS Society this year. The charity’s annual grant round is part of its continued commitment to support new and exciting MS research projects in the UK, covering a wide range of areas from finding new treatments to improving care and services.

Dr Susan Kohlhaas, Director of Research at the MS Society, said:

“More than 100,000 people live with MS in the UK and, for many people living with progressive forms of the condition, there are no treatments available. We believe we can stop MS, but until then we urgently need to find new and innovative ways to help everyone with the condition live as well as they are able.

“Exercise is not a ‘nice to have’– it’s a proven way for people with MS to slow the build-up of disability, improve their symptoms and even boost their mood. That’s why we’re so proud to be investing nearly £40,000 into this exciting new project in Sheffield. If the study is successful, it could make it easier for everyone with MS to exercise, and has the potential to have a huge impact on our community.”

The MS Society is the UK’s leading not-for-profit funder of MS research and has invested over £220 million in today’s money since they opened in 1953.

To donate to the MS Society’s Stop MS Appeal or for more information visit mssociety.org.uk/stop. Or text FUTURE6 to 70800 to donate £5.