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Using a new exoskeleton design combined with non-invasive spinal simulation engineers have made it possible for a man paralyzed from the waist down to walk again.
Leveraging on research where the UCLA team recently used the same non-invasive technique to enable five completely paralyzed men to move their legs, the new work has allowed the latest subject, Mark Pollock, to regain some voluntary movement – even up to two weeks after training with the external electrical stimulation had ended.
Pollock, who had been totally paralyzed from the waist down for four years prior to this study, was given five days of training in the robot exoskeleton, and a further two weeks muscle training with the external stimulation unit. The stimulated and voluntary leg movements have not only shown that regaining mobility through this technique is possible, but that the training itself provides a range of health benefits in itself, especially in enhanced cardiovascular function and improved muscle tone.
The new system has been created as an amalgam of a battery-driven bionic exoskeleton that allows users’ leg movements to propel the unit in a step-by-step way, and a non-invasive external stimulator to trigger nerve signals to create the leg movements. In this way, Pollock made significant progress after being given just a few weeks physical training without spinal stimulation and then five days of spinal stimulation exercise an hour a day over a week-long period. “In the last few weeks of the trial, my heart rate hit 138 beats per minute,” said Pollock. “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.”
His ability to walk is not achieved easily, and without extensive help and preparation fades. However, the results here are very hopeful that future developments will make it possible for paraplegics to once again walk.