It was only a few yards, but Mark Pollock, a paraplegic from Northern Ireland, took his first steps in four years bewildering medical scientists and engineers everywhere. Paralysed after falling from a second-story window in 2010, Pollock is the first person with complete paralysis to regain enough control to use a mechanical exoskeleton, unless you count Jake Sully from James Cameron’s Avatar…
Detailed in a paper that was presented at the 47th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society proceedings earlier this week, the team behind the project said that by stimulating Pollock’s spinal-cord with a special kind of electrical current he was able to put more effort towards taking steps in the suit. Parag Gad from the University of California at Los Angeles and the study’s co-authors explained that they began by issuing the electrical current to certain parts of his spinal-cord vertebrate to reactivate neurons before putting him through various physical therapy sessions. As he continued through his testing, Pollock noted a feeling of tension and tingling in his lower limbs during the exercises, as well as sweat appearing on his lower back and legs – something that he had not experienced in his four years of paralysis – says the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, which funded the study. He was then equipped with the the robotic suit, developed by Ekso Bionics, a Californian company that specializes in mechanical exoskeletons, and commenced his walking trials.
“It will be difficult to get people with chronic, complete paralysis to walk completely independently, but even if they don’t accomplish that, the fact they can assist themselves in walking will greatly improve their overall health and quality of life,” stated V. Reggie Edgerton, senior author and a UCLA professor of integrative biology. “For people who are severely injured but not with complete paralysis there’s every reason to believe they could improve even more with these types of interventions.
The researchers don’t describe Pollock’s actions as ‘walking’ due to the need for the combination of the exoskeleton and spinal stimulation, however Pollocks has already taken thousand of steps, saying that the training is “addictive”.
“Based on this case study it appears that there is considerable potential [for this type of technology]” says Gad.