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By stimulating the spine, this exoskeleton helps paralyzed people re-learn how to walk

A team of scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles developed a robotic exoskeleton that’ll help paralyzed people walk with minimal assistance. Unlike other robotic suits that step for the person while they move along passively, the UCLA system uses spinal stimulation to trigger a patient’s muscles. This approach allows patients to control their leg muscles voluntarily as they take steps with the support of the device.

UCLA’s system uses a battery-powered bionic suit built by California-based Ekso Bionics. The Iron Man-like exoskeleton allows people to move their legs in a step-like fashion. The suit is paired with a non-invasive spinal stimulation technique that makes it possible for people to relearn voluntary leg movements without surgery. Data collected by the suit’s sensors can be used to determine how much the person is actively moving their limbs and how much they are relying on the device. With training, the patient can learn to move their legs more and rely on the suit less.

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In a recent series of tests, the UCLA team worked with 39-year-old Mark Pollock, who was paralyzed from the waist down following a fall from a second-story in 2010. Before his injury, Pollock was an athlete, competing in ultra-marathons and the UK’s Commonwealth Games. After just a few weeks of training and spinal stimulation, Pollock was able to walk successfully with the device, even raising his heart rate to an aerobic training zone. The former athlete was pleased with his progress, saying “the awareness of my legs under me, was addictive,” adding that he “wanted more.”

Even though it will be years before this technology is ready for clinical usage, Edgerton believes these new approaches to treating spinal cord injuries provides hope for those with paralysis.  Even if patients cannot walk completely independently, the bionic suit and spinal simulation may help them recover multiple body functions and enhance their overall quality of life.  The research was presented last month at the 37th international conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society.