A paraplegic man was able to walk again thanks to some help from advanced technology.
Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, described how they helped the 26-year-old patient walk again in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation. Before, the patient had no motor function or feeling below his injury except for the sensation of having a full bladder.
For the first part of the experiment, the man practiced walking in virtual reality. Through this experiment, his brainwaves were read through an EEG machine to determine how his brain worked when he felt like he was walking. At the same time, researchers used electrical stimulation to help the man’s atrophied muscles rebuild themselves. The man used a walker to aid movement and then an electrical stimulation was fired into his leg to help it move and “step.”
After weeks of practice, the team was able to combine the training and have the man “walk” by having his EEG brainwaves link to electrical stimulation in his leg. The team had the patient in a harness so he didn’t fall.
In the video, the patient is seen taking tentative steps with a walker by using his brain. Researchers said that while more studies were needed, their work showed for “the first time that restoring brain-controlled overground walking after paraplegia due to [spinal cord injury] is feasible.”
Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, professor of neurobiology and the director for the Center of Neuroengineering at Duke University, said the study was exciting, but emphasized that the dramatic results will need to be replicated in other paraplegic patients. He said it’s imperative that scientists work to find ways to help paraplegics gain more mobility.
“Walking is a very fundamental behavior for us,” he said, pointing out that sitting can affect a person’s cardiovascular health or their bladder control.
“The impediment or impact of not walking is very dramatic for the whole body,” he continued.
Nicolelis, who has gained headlines by creating a “mind-controlled” exoskeleton that debuted at the World Cup, said he hoped that paraplegic patients will have more options to help them stand and move again in the next few years.
“I think you’re going to see the convergence of these multiple techniques,” Nicolelis said referring to technology including electrical stimulation and exoskeletons. “Different technologies compensate for the short comings of others.”