Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Robo-skeleton may add to mobility options for paraplegics

From the BBC August 26, which also has a video on the site to see the Robo-skeleton in motion:

A robotic suit is helping people paralysed from the waist down do what was previously considered impossible - stand, walk and climb stairs.

ReWalk users wear a backpack device and braces on their legs and select the activity they want from a remote control wrist band.

Leaning forwards activates body sensors setting the robotic legs in motion.

Users walk with crutches, controlling the suit through changes in centre of gravity and upper body movements.

The device effectively mimics the exoskeletion of a crab.

Former Israeli paratrooper Radi Kaiof has been paralysed for the last 20 years following an injury during his service in the Israeli military.

He says the device has changed his life.

"I never dreamed I would walk again. After I was wounded, I forgot what it's like. Only when standing up can I feel how tall I really am and speak to people eye to eye, not from below."

The device, which is now in clinical trials in Tel Aviv's Sheba Medical Centre, is the brainchild of engineer Amit Goffer, founder of Argo Medical Technologies, a small Israeli high-tech company.

It was Goffer's own paralysis that inspired him to look for an alternative to the wheelchair for mobility.

The company claims that by maintaining users upright on a daily basis, and exercising even paralysed limbs in the course of movement, the device can alleviate many of the health-related problems associated with long-term wheelchair use.

Kate Parkin, director of physical and occupational therapy at NYU Medical Center in the US said the potential benefits to the user were two-fold.

"Physically, the body works differently when upright. You can challenge different muscles and allow full expansion of the lungs.

"Psychologically, it lets people live at the upright level and make eye contact."

Dr Mark Bacon, an expert at the UK charity Spinal Research, said: "There are a number of devices about which stabilise the trunk and can help with gait.

"Often they are very bulky and are only used for rehabilitation in specialist centres."

He said ReWalk might be a good option for some people.

"Sitting down in a wheelchair can be an issue for some people. Devices like this one might be appealing. However, it might not be any better than a wheelchair in terms of convenience.

"And these devices are only suitable for people who still have good control over their hands and shoulders."