LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – September 1, 2015 (UPI) — Using a robotic exoskeleton and experimental method of stimulating leg muscles, a completely paralyzed man voluntarily took thousands of steps, report scientists at the University of California Los Angeles.
The combination of robotic assistance and noninvasive muscle stimulation is a novel combination of technologies that builds on the same scientific team’s accomplishments earlier this year with five paralyzed men who made stepping motions on their own for the first time since being injured.
“For people who are severely injured but not completely paralyzed, there’s every reason to believe that they will have the opportunity to use these types of interventions to further improve their level of function. They’re likely to improve even more,” V. Reggie Edgerton, a professor of integrative biology and physiology, neurobiology and neurosurgery at UCLA, said in a press release. “We need to expand the clinical toolbox available for people with spinal cord injury and other diseases.”
Edgarton’s team announced earlier this year that they’d helped five paralyzed men move their legs in stepping motions using electrodes placed over the spine and on their legs.
The team then combined the noninvasive technique with a robotic exoskeleton that 39-year-old Mark Pollock had been using during work to regain some movement in his legs. The suit can detect the amount of movement Pollock made as compared with what the suit is providing, allowing the researchers to know how much was the man and how much was the suit.
The researchers gave Pollock physical training with the suit for several weeks, without spinal stimulation. During five days of training with stimulation, and during two weeks after the training, Pollock took thousands of steps with voluntary movements of his legs — something he’d not done since being paralyzed.
The researchers said they could see he was flexing his left knee and raising his leg, and was voluntarily working with the robot during stepping.
“In the last few weeks of the trial, my heart rate hit 138 beats per minute,” Pollock said. “This is an aerobic training zone, a rate I haven’t even come close to since being paralyzed while walking in the robot alone, without these interventions. That was a very exciting, emotional moment for me, having spent my whole adult life before breaking my back as an athlete.”
Pollock lost his sight in 1998, and was paralyzed from the waist down after he fell out of a second-story window in 2010.
“Stepping with the stimulation and having my heart rate increase, along with the awareness of my legs under me, was addictive,” he said. “I wanted more.”