A new study has shown how a “robotic exoskeleton” device helped a completely paralyzed man voluntarily move his legs.
The team of UCLA scientists reported that a 39-year-old man, who had had been completely paralyzed for four years was able to voluntarily control his leg muscles and take thousands of steps in a “robotic exoskeleton” device, during five days of training and for two weeks afterward.
This is the first time that a person with chronic, complete paralysis has regained enough voluntary control to actively work with a robotic device designed to enhance mobility.
In addition to the robotic device, the man was aided by a novel noninvasive spinal stimulation technique that does not require surgery. His leg movements also resulted in other health benefits, including improved cardiovascular function and muscle tone.
The new approach combines a battery-powered wearable bionic suit that enables people to move their legs in a step-like fashion, with a noninvasive procedure that the same researchers had previously used to enable five men who had been completely paralyzed to move their legs in a rhythmic motion.
The researchers do not describe the achievement as “walking” because no one who is completely paralyzed has independently walked in the absence of the robotic device and electrical stimulation of the spinal cord.
Senior author V. Reggie Edgerton said that it will be difficult to get people with complete paralysis to walk completely independently, but even if they don’t accomplish that, the fact they can assist themselves in walking will greatly improve their overall health and quality of life.
The research will be published by the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, the world’s largest society of biomedical engineers.