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Helping The Paralyzed To Walk Again

February 4, 2011

A technique helping stroke victims regain their mobility has won the 2010 Danish Research Result of the Year award and is now attracting attention from investors keen to see the research move from the lab and into rehabilitation centers. Professor Ole Kaeseler Andersen of the Center for Sensory-Motor Interaction at Aalborg University, Denmark, has developed method that uses the nervous system’s natural reflex reaction to pain to aid stroke patient rehabilitation.

Andersen’s research is based on the way a person pulls the foot back as a reflex to sudden pain – known as nociceptive withdrawal reflex. A better understanding of this reflex has lead to it being used as a tool in rehabilitation.

“We have developed a method of using electrical stimulation of the withdrawal reflex in a way that can help in patients’ rehabilitation,” says Andersen. “The electrical impulse triggers a natural reflex such that the leg is pulled up and the foot moves, so the patient is helped to move their leg even though he or she was partially paralyzed after a stroke.”

The treatment, called functional electrical therapy, has been tested with stroke patients at the Neuro-Rehabilitation Center at Vendsyssel Hospital in Bronderslev, Denmark.

Having won the Danish Research Result of the Year for 2010, the Center for Sensory-Motor Interaction research has now attracted investor attention. Negotiations are under way with an investor interested in providing venture capital for the project, a move that will see the new technology venture out of the research laboratory and into the commercial market, being sold to rehabilitation centers world-wide.

eLegs

From this story I found a company called Berkeley Bionics that has developed an exoskeleton device they call eLegs. Launched in October of 2010 it was named one of the top 50 innovations of the year by Time Magazine, #3 of the top 10 inventions from CNN and #2 in the same category with Wired Magazine.

Their official press release:

Berkeley Bionics™, developer and maker of bionic exoskeletons that augment human strength, endurance and mobility, today unveiled eLEGS, a wearable, artificially intelligent, bionic device that powers paraplegics up to get them standing and walking.

eLEGS was unveiled at a press conference today in San Francisco by Berkeley Bionics’ CEO, Eythor Bender, who explained that the company’s mission is to provide people with unprecedented mobility options. “Many of the 6 million Americans who live with some form of paralysis today were highly active and at the top of their game when they sustained their injury. As they research their options for increased mobility, they discover that wheelchairs are pretty much it. This has been the only alternative – their only hope – for nearly 500 years,” he said. “We want to enhance their independence and freedom of movement,” he added, “and with eLEGS, they can stand up and walk for the first time since their injury.”

“As a wheelchair user, I experience the multiple health and fitness benefits of mobility from the standing position. I can’t wait to share this alternative with other individuals,” shared eLEGS tester and a partial quadriplegic herself, Dr. Suzy Kim, an assistant clinical professor at the Dept. of Orthopaedic Surgery, Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, UCI Medical Center, as well as director, Clinical Spinal Cord Injury Program & Scientific Liaison for Reeve-Irvine Research Center. “The application of eLEGS will revolutionize the field of neurologic rehabilitation from the hospital to the home setting.”

Initially, the device will be offered to rehabilitation centers for use under medical supervision, and can be adjusted to fit most people between 5’2 and 6’4” and weighing 220 lbs or less, in a matter of minutes. Users must be able to self-transfer from their wheelchair. Simple Velcro straps, backpack-style clips, and shoulder straps secure eLEGS to the user, over their clothing and shoes, and with a little practice, users can put eLEGS on and take it off in a minute or two.

eLEGS provides unprecedented knee flexion, which translates into the most natural human gait available in any exoskeleton today, making it better equipped to handle mixed terrains. It is also relatively quiet while in operation. Walking speeds depend on each patient’s aptitude and condition, but speeds in excess of 2MPH can be attained, and speeds can be varied. The device is battery-powered and employs a gesture-based human-machine interface which — utilizing sensors — observes the gestures the user makes to determine their intentions and then acts accordingly. A real-time computer draws on sensors and input devices to orchestrate every aspect of a single stride.

Clinical trials will commence early next year at select rehabilitation clinics in the United States. A limited release of eLEGS is scheduled during the second half of 2011 at several of the most respected rehabilitation facilities around the country. At that time, eligible patients will have the opportunity to enroll in a medically-supervised eLEGS gait training program, working with their physical therapist. Therapists will undergo training in order to become eLEGS-certified prior to assisting patients.

Berkeley Bionics developed the first practical exoskeleton and the first untethered exoskeleton in the world. Lockheed Martin Corporation entered into a licensed agreement with Berkeley Bionics in January, 2009 and is currently productizing the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC™). HULC’s users can carry up to 200 lbs for hours and over all terrains.

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