Research finds brain machine interfaces and robotics help paraplegics walk again

Patients who have been diagnosed paraplegic could show long-term positive results in mobility thanks to interesting therapy partners: robots and brain machine interfaces.

Research published by Nature has shown that long-term training with brain machine interfaces on patients who have suffered a spinal cord injury could result in positive effects. The research was conducted by an international group of scientists, led by Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University.

The program--dubbed the Walk Again Neurorehabilitation (WA-NR) protocol--had participants start small and work their way up. The 8 patients ranged in their condition from having been paralyzed for three years to 13 years. The first step of the WA-NR protocol was to control a 3-D avatar on a screen using their imagination. Patients would move the avatar by imagining their arms or legs moving.

Later in the program they would use a robotic gait trainer in a similar fashion. Participants would be hooked up to the trainer and would imagine taking steps. The brain-controlled robotic exoskeleton would respond to those thoughts. Participants also used a traditional robotic gait trainer throughout the program duration.

By the end of the study, researchers found that a mixture of robotic and traditional movement therapy could significantly improve patients’ recovery.

“All patients in this study, who previously did not exhibit any sensory or motor function below the level of injury, started to show signs of motor recovery after seven months; and by the end of the treatment, this recovery stabilized,” the release from Hocoma noted. Hocoma is a leader in robotic and traditional movement therapy. You can see Hocoma devices being used in the Walk Again Project video.

The release also noted that in addition to improvement in walking independence, patients also saw improvements in gastrointestinal function and skin condition.

“We are really pleased that more and more studies like this are conducted and published,” said Gery Colombo, the CEO of Hocoma, in the release. “After the American heart/stroke association (AHA/ASA) already officially recommended the positive effects of robotic therapy for patients with stroke earlier this year, this study confirms reports and feedback we receive on a daily basis from our clinical partners.”

Colombo also made it clear that despite these patient improvements being seen as miraculous, the truth is far from it being a miracle. “The better the patient’s outcome, the better is the mix of intensive therapy with advanced technologies. All of them are based on principles of physiology and motor learning,” he explained.

- here's the release
- see the study in Nature

Related Articles: 
Paraplegic walks by guiding a robotic skeleton with the brain via an EEG system
Tiny spinal implant helps paraplegics exercise

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