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New exoskeleton is the first to stimulate paralysis patients' muscles electrically, an effective therapy

While stem cell therapies could provide a true "cure" for paralysis in humans in decades to come, in the shorter term, wearable robotics could provide an effective stopgap therapy.  Several industry and research groups have been developing robotic "exoskeletons", which offer load-bearing walking motions.  In able-bodied humans, the skeletons can help workers carry heavier loads without joint stress.  But in paraplegics the promise is even greater -- the exoskeletons could allow them to "walk" again.

I. Building a Cheaper, Better Medical Exoskeleton

Currently, so-called "rehabilitative" exoskeletons are available to paraplegics, but they remain relatively expensive -- costing $140,000 USD or more.  With that problem in mind, researchers at Vanderbilt University's Center for Intelligent Mechatronics have designed a new "minimalist" robotic rehabilitative exoskeleton, and are working with Parker Hannifin Corp. (PH) to produce the device at a lower cost.

The device will compete with at least two other companies -- Argo Medical Technologies Ltd. in Israel and Ekso Bionics in Berkeley, Calif. -- for an estimated market of 236,000 to 327,000 patients in the U.S. suffering from severe spinal injuries.

The system is pretty standard, complete with hip and knee joints, which are robotic motors powered by rechargeable batteries.  Unlike more ambitious, but more expensive designs, the system is not capable of solely maintaining balance.  Paraplegic users will use the suit (which straps on around the waist and over the shoulders) to walk, but they'll have to use crutches to help maintain balance.

Mechanical engineering professor Michael Goldfarb describes, "You can think of our exoskeleton as a Segway with legs.  If the person wearing it leans forward, he moves forward. If he leans back and holds that position for a few seconds, he sits down. When he is sitting down, if he leans forward and holds that position for a few seconds, then he stands up."

Brian Shaffer, a paraplegic since 2010, tested the suit at a satellite facility in Nashville, Tenn.  He recalls, "My kids have started calling me 'Ironman.'  It's unbelievable to stand up again. It takes concentration to use it at first but, once you catch on, it's not that hard: The device does all the work. I don't expect that it will completely replace the wheelchair, but there are some situations, like walking your daughter down the aisle at her wedding or sitting in the bleachers watching your son play football, where it will be priceless."

II. Physical Therapy Success, Lays Groundwork for Home Use

An important note is that the device and its peers still are not geared for home use; they're targeted at a rehabilitative (think doctor's office) setting.  But in terms of devices in that environment, the new exoskeleton appears very competitive.

The suit and similar models are not only liberating to the paralyzed; they can also cut down on serious health issues caused by sitting for prolonged periods in wheelchairs.  It's light -- only 27 lb (versus the common weight of around 45 lb) -- and slim.  The modular and minimalist design allows it to be folded up and transported on the back of a wheelchair.

The device also incorporates two other rehabilitative advances.  First, it's capable of detecting users' muscle movements.  That means in users with reduced capability, but not complete leg paralysis, the device can provide a less powerful amount of resistance.  This "just enough" approach can help prevent joint damage in partially paralyzed individuals.

Vanderbilt exoskeleton
Vanderbilt's new exoskeleton is lighter than its rivals and bakes in new capabilities.
[Image Source: Vanderbilt/Parker Hannifin]

Second, the device claims to be the first exoskeleton to apply small electrical pulses to paralyzed muscles, causing them to contract and relax.  This approach -- functional electrical stimulation (FES) -- has been shown to improve circulation, change bone density, and reduce muscle atrophy in victims of paralysis.

Clare Hartigan, a physical therapist at Shepherd Center, the medical center that helped test the device, did offer a warning for paraplegics that walking again wasn't as easy as they might hope -- it's a real workout.  She states, "These new devices for walking are here and they are getting better and better. However, a person has to be physically fit to use them. They have to keep their weight below 220 pounds, develop adequate upper body strength to use a walker or forearm crutches and maintain flexibility in their shoulder, hip, knee and ankle joints ... which is not that easy when a person has relied on a wheelchair for months or even years."

Still, it's thrilling to watch iterative refinement of robotics exoskeletons for rehabilitation, a success that is almost surely a prelude to even more liberating exoskeletons for home use.

The suit design work was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Its other key contributors were research engineer Don Truex, graduate students Hugo Quintero, Spencer Murray and Kevin Ha, and Ryan Farris, a former student who now works for Parker Hannifin.

Sources: Vanderbilt [press release], [video]

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It came from Star Trek...
By dgingerich on 10/31/2012 6:28:26 PM , Rating: 2
There was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Worf got injured and was unable to walk. They tried putting things like this on his legs, but he was too stubborn to try to use them. (I'm sure that will be a problem for some people in real life as well.) In the end, he got his spinal cord replaced, which is not really an option in real life.

I just hope they don't patent this as being a new idea when it isn't. Sure, they made it real, and they should get the credit for all the technologies behind it, like the control mechanism and how it stimulates the nerves, but if some other company finds a different way to do this for cheaper or fewer side effects, this company shouldn't be allowed to sue that other company just because they have the same basic level idea, like a rectangle with rounded corners for a tablet form factor. Especially considering the idea came from science fiction a long time before this company even tried working on making it real.

RE: It came from Star Trek...
By Manch on 10/31/2012 7:00:01 PM , Rating: 2
First off, this idea is older than Star Trek. Secondly they're not calling this a new idea.

Did you read the article?

There are other versions with better technology as the article states ($140K or more)that do not require crutches for balance. This is simply a program to pare these devices down to realm of affordability by working with a manufacturer on the design to reduce cost.

RE: It came from Star Trek...
By FITCamaro on 10/31/2012 7:09:23 PM , Rating: 2
I look forward to when all paralyzed people will have this as an option.

RE: It came from Star Trek...
By bigboxes on 10/31/2012 8:38:05 PM , Rating: 2
...under Obamacare :)

RE: It came from Star Trek...
By aebiv on 10/31/2012 9:38:16 PM , Rating: 2
Regardless of how.

RE: It came from Star Trek...
By FITCamaro on 11/1/2012 8:08:14 PM , Rating: 2
Under Obamacare these would be more expensive due to the medical devices tax.

RE: It came from Star Trek...
By Manch on 10/31/2012 11:15:04 PM , Rating: 2
At the rate they are advancing robotics/processors, etc hopefully we will start to see prostetics(sp?) and more devices like these to help people live better lives.

By inperfectdarkness on 11/1/2012 2:45:33 AM , Rating: 2
to be fair, dark-angel displayed this "tech" with a lot more prominence than trek ever did. in fact, even though the idea predates both shows, i can't think of anywhere else the idea was better showcased than dark-angel.

RE: It came from Star Trek...
By BSMonitor on 11/1/12, Rating: 0
RE: It came from Star Trek...
By geddarkstorm on 11/1/2012 11:33:17 AM , Rating: 4
What are you talking about? Adult stem cell treatments are coming along swimmingly. Embryonic ones are being worked in by science, but just aren't remotely as good as adult stem cells for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with religion, but pure biology.

RE: It came from Star Trek...
By ClownPuncher on 11/1/2012 3:57:51 PM , Rating: 2
Pure biology? Pfff. Call me when this is endorsed by Orthodox Biology.

Great, soon people won't need to walk
By BugblatterIII on 10/31/2012 4:14:15 PM , Rating: 2
Because the long trek to the Segway is sooooo hard...

I saw a video of this a month or so ago and it's very impressive though; for its intended use of restoring mobility to people it's fantastic.

By StevoLincolnite on 10/31/2012 4:40:02 PM , Rating: 3
As a Carer for the old and frail and those with disabilities, I welcome this.
It's heart breaking when you see someone who is incredibly intelligent yet have something debilitating which prevents them from doing the most basic of tasks that we all take for granted.

By Stuka on 10/31/2012 5:59:53 PM , Rating: 2
I'm seeing a "The Wrong Trousers" scenario.

Why Ironman?
By danjw1 on 10/31/2012 7:51:01 PM , Rating: 2
Why do you mention Ironman, whenever there is some news story about an exoskeleton? It seems silly, you should get some new material. :-)

RE: Why Ironman?
By ClownPuncher on 11/1/2012 3:36:38 PM , Rating: 2
Page clicks. This is a business, after all.

Rentals / Therapy
By DopeFishhh on 11/1/2012 3:24:34 AM , Rating: 2
I can see these types of devices being used more as rentals or for short physical therapy sessions rather than permanent to own.

As they stated in the video, just walking around has benefits to your health so you could have facilities where paraplegics (and possibly even quadriplegics with more development) can get some exercise to the areas that they couldn't before.

"We shipped it on Saturday. Then on Sunday, we rested." -- Steve Jobs on the iPad launch

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