People can spend a lifetime feeling disconnected from their lower body, and tend to receive less physical therapy as a result. Just over a third of the 12,500 people who experience a spinal cord injury every year in the US have complete injuries.
The Walk Again Project’s results suggest that rehabilitation with an exoskeleton might offer a better future. Developed by a team of 156 people spanning the globe, the device reads the wearer’s brain activity using an electrode cap. Activity patterns associated with the wearer’s intention to move are translated into an electrical signal that moves the legs of the exoskeleton, allowing the person to walk.
The exoskeleton has another important feature: it provides tactile feedback to the wearer. A flexible bed of temperature, pressure and proximity sensors – what the team calls an artificial skin – lines the sole of each foot. When the wearer takes a step, a signal is relayed to their forearm, which is still able to feel sensations. “You are driving the exoskeleton by thinking about what you want to do, and you are getting instantaneous feedback from the surface on how you’re walking and how you’re moving in space,” says Nicolelis.
Seven of Nicolelis’s eight volunteers have complete spinal cord injuries. At the start of the training, all eight said they felt disconnected from their lower body, and were unable to even imagine moving their paralysed body parts. But after 1100 hours of training, everyone said they felt a sense of ownership over their limbs. “They felt that they had legs again,” says Nicolelis. “They can actually feel that they are touching the ground and moving their legs.”
But what really startled the team was that everyone showed signs of functional recovery. “In every patient we saw an improvement in tactile sensation,” says Nicolelis. Some people could feel regions of their body seven vertebrae below their spinal cord injury, and everyone could voluntarily move muscles in their lower limbs.
The greatest improvement was in a woman who had received a complete spinal cord injury 13 years ago. After a year of training, she could feel sensations below her injury, and, when supported in a harness, could make leg movements associated with walking.
The Walk Again exoskeleton is still only a prototype. The group is developing a slim-line, affordable version, and is training more people with spinal cord injuries. The wearers don’t seem to mind the clunky prototype – one asked to borrow it so he could walk down the aisle at his wedding.
SOURCE – New SCientist
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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