By Shannon Flynn

 

The beauty of technology is that it takes the impossible and makes it possible. One area where the wonders of the tech world are the most miraculous is in the medical field – specifically in the treatment of paralysis.

In the past, people who had been paralyzed would rely on mobility devices like wheelchairs to navigate the world; however, this is changing with new high-tech innovations. Patients are regaining muscle movement with help from virtual reality training, while others are using high-tech braces that function like a mechanical exoskeleton to walk again.

 

Treating Paralysis with Virtual Reality

If you thought that virtual reality (VR) was just for video games, you thought wrong. The Walk Again Project in São Paulo, Brazil is using VR training to help paraplegic patients regain sensation and muscle control, and the study has seen great success so far.

The team, led by a Duke University researcher named Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, has been using brain-controlled robotics and VR training to restore the physical and neurological interactions in eight patients with spinal cord injuries.

The findings from the first portion of the study were recently published in Scientific Reports. One patient, known as Patient 1, regained partial control over her legs after being paralyzed from the waist down for 13 years. In fact, all eight study participants recovered some muscle control and sensation after training for a year.

According to Dr. Nicolelis, VR training is a critical component of treatment. After being paralyzed for several years, the brain begins to forget what it’s like to walk – and even what it’s like to have legs. However, a specially-designed VR system from Oculus Rift and a long-sleeved shirt with haptic technology are helping the brain remember.

Using the VR headset, the patient controls a digital version of themselves using their mind. When they move their avatar, the shirt sends sensations to the body to mimic the feeling of the surface the character is standing on.

- Over time, the brain is tricked into thinking it is receiving feedback from the feet or legs, which helps the brain remember how to walk.

- After a patient makes sufficient progress with the VR training, they can start moving their real body using a robotic walker that they control with their brain.

All of this stimulation seems to slowly wake up a small number of surviving nerves. Eventually, this training helps reestablish connections between the brain and muscles, which allows patients to regain control of their muscles and bodily functions, including bladder and bowel movements.

In addition to being effective, these treatments are also affordable. Since systems that incorporate VR and haptic technology aren’t very expensive, Dr. Nicolelis believes that this high-tech treatment will be widely available someday.

Computerized Leg Braces and Mechanical Exoskeletons

A company called Ottobock has developed a new electronic leg brace known as the C-Brace. The device was designed to help individuals who suffer from “lower-limb mobility issues due to partial paralysis, incomplete spinal cord injury, post-polio syndrome, quadriceps weakness, and post-stroke.” 

This intriguing invention is a computer controlled knee ankle foot orthosis (KAFO) and it functions like a mechanical exoskeleton that attaches around the foot and extends up the thigh. 

-There are sensors at the knee joint of each brace that measure the joint’s position multiple times every second. 

-To measure ankle pressure, there is a carbon/fiberglass spring with a sensor between the knee and the foot. 

-The brain of the C-Brace is the microprocessor and it receives data from the sensors to adjust the hydraulic system that is responsible for moving the leg. 

Simply put, the C-Brace does the walking for individuals with mobility issues. It moves beyond the traditional locked knee joint leg brace to provide dynamic and natural movement. The sensors and microprocessor work together to make each person’s gait smoother and more stable on a wide variety of terrain. 

This high-tech brace is so effective at improving mobility that it’s even allowing one woman to hike the Appalachian Trail. Although only one in four people complete this grueling journey, Stacey Kozel is planning to finish her hike by the Fourth of July – with help from this cutting-edge technology.

However, the C-Brace isn’t the only device on the market that’s helping paralysis patients get around. ReWalk is described as a “wearable robotic exoskeleton” and it “provides powered hip and knee motion to enable individuals with spinal cord injury (SCI)” to stand, walk, and turn. 

Powered by batteries, the system includes motors at the hip and knee joints. When the system senses the forward tilt of the upper body, it takes the first step. Then, each time the body shifts, the system generates a sequence of steps to mimic a natural gait.

ReWalk has received FDA clearance to be used for personal and rehabilitation use in the United States. The ReWalk Personal System is designed for walking around an individual’s home and community, while the ReWalk Rehabilitation System is used in clinics for exercise and therapy. The Bronx VA is one location that utilizes the system to help veterans regain strength and independence through movement.

Science and technology are allowing individuals with paralysis and mobility issues to do what was once thought to be impossible: walk. Today, VR and mechanical exoskeletons are being used to help paralysis patients. Just imagine what new technological advances will be used in the next decade.