Developments in Exoskeleton Technology Could Help Some Walk Again

2018-06-13

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  • An accident, a disease or other health problems leave more than 15 million people a year paralyzed.
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  • They have lost control of their legs and are unable to walk.
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  • But new technology, along with physical exercise, could help some of them walk again.
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  • Among the most promising developments is the use of robotic exoskeletons, like ones made by Ekso Bionics.
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  • The exoskeleton is worn on the user’s back and around the stomach.
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  • Robotic ‘legs’ with ‘feet’ extend from both sides of the device and go around the user’s legs.
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  • A video game-style controller connects to the device.
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  • Lindsey Stoefen is working to recover from a rare disorder that has forced her to use a wheelchair since last October.
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  • She now does physical therapy with the exoskeleton for an hour a day.
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  • The 17-year-old former athlete is a patient at the Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Chicago, Illinois.
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  • She climbed into a specially designed exoskeleton for the first time in late April.
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  • Stoefen remembers being nervous.
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  • “Am I going to like it? Will I be okay?’ she asked. But once she got into it, she loved it.
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  • Lauren Bularzik, Lindsey’s physical therapist, says the robotic exoskeletons help to speed up the recovery process.
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  • “For someone who takes a lot of energy to only walk a few feet, exo can get them up, can get them moving,” Bularzik said.
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  • She added that it can improve a person’s movements, and lets the person plan those movements.
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  • Besides speeding up recovery times, these robotic skeletons are especially helpful for those suffering from paralysis, from spinal cord injuries or strokes.
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  • Using the machine can help some patients rewire their brains to use secondary muscles, so they can eventually walk again - without the device.
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  • American scientists are leading the way with their work on wearable robots that help patients regain some or all of their movement.
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  • Patrick Wensing is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
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  • He notes that exoskeletons have one major problem.
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  • “While existing exoskeletons are very powerful, they don’t understand what the user wants to do,” Wensing said.
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  • He added that the user has to give the exoskeleton directions.
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  • Wensing and his team are working with Ekso Bionics, the developer of wearable robots.
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  • Their goal is to build a simpler system.
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  • They hope to create a machine that can understand what its user wants to do without implanted sensors and complex controls.
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  • The National Science Foundation’s robotic program is providing support for the three-year project.
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  • Taylor Gambon has spent the past year examining information from exoskeleton users and comparing it to models of everyday walking.
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  • “What we’re seeing is that slow walking in general, whether in the exoskeleton or just the human, is much different from walking at a (normal) speed,” Gambon said.
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  • Later this year, the team will travel to Ekso Bionics' headquarters, where they will work with exoskeletons to design programs for users with many disabilities.
  • [05:30.34]
  • I’m Susan Shand.
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