Zain Samdani’s keen interest and research on improving the quality of life of people with paralysis has led to the development of a wearable device whose sensory and exoskeletal robotic gloves can ensure sensation in a paralyzed hand
During a family vacation in 2015, Zain Samdani met his distant maternal uncle for the first time. The then-teenager was shocked to see him partially paralyzed due to a stroke; he could barely respond and could not lift a spoon.
“Imagine what it would be like to have another person help you out for every little activity in your life?” says Samdani.
On researching paralysis, Samdani found that rehabilitation is time-consuming and psychologically strenuous and that robotic rehabilitation sessions cost as much as ₹8,000-12,000 per session. “When I visited a couple of these [rehab] centres, I realized the patients had to travel there, which was extremely painful. Additionally, though the sessions were expensive, I couldn’t see much modern technology being used,” says the now-21-year-old. These observations led him to develop Neuro-ExoHeal, a wearable device to help patients with hand paralysis.
The device is divided into a sensory glove for the functional hand and an exoskeletal robotic glove for the paralyzed hand, based on the concept of neuroplasticity. Samdani found out about this concept when he read The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge and realized how neuroplasticity could help persons with disability. At that time, he was also working on developing affordable prosthetic hands. “Things just clicked, and everything just pieced together,” he says. Given how complicated the subject was, Samdani had to research on it extensively—secondary and primary research, including meeting a lot of neuroscientists and physiotherapists—before coming up with an innovative solution.
Samdani explains how Neuro-ExoHeal’s technology works: “When a movement is performed by the functional hand, the exoskeleton forces the paralyzed hand to mirror the same motion. This mirroring allows the mirror neuron to trick the brain into believing that the paralyzed hand is alright, forming new neural connections and reviving the paralyzed hand.”
For this innovation, Samdani was one of 16 global finalists at the Google Science Fair in 2016 and 2019. He is associated with the KV Rao Scientific Society in Hyderabad, where he has been working on the research and design of the device since December 2020.
While Samdani was in the midst of his research, around 2018, he was diagnosed with Intermittent Exotropia, a rare medical disability that doubled his vision every two to three hours. It would be too much mental strain for him, and he would eventually collapse.
It took about four months to diagnose the disability and start treatment. “This condition deprived me of my ability to concentrate on my studies and aspirations and just lead a normal life,” says Samdani. After three years, Samdani has overcome his temporary disability but considers it a “blessing in disguise”.
While he was still recovering with the support of his family his mother being his biggest inspiration Samdani restarted his Neuro-ExoHeal project. Currently, he leads a five-person team with age groups ranging from 19 to 23 and aims to help patients with hand paralysis have a faster, more comfortable, and inexpensive rehabilitation experience. Eventually, Samdani and his team hope to expand to conditions outside of paralysis and look at other body parts.
One of the primary challenges Samdani faced as a young innovator was “dealing with self-doubt and negativity.” He also struggled to get the proper support and funding for some of his projects. “I feel,” he says, “the key is to find the right people and ask them the right questions.”