Recovery from paralysis was considered impossible until very recently. A volunteer with protracted and complete paralysis has recovered sufficient voluntary control to control an exoskeleton and walk again. All this has been possible due to the team of UCLA scientists working on the project that involves non-invasive stimulation and no surgery.
The UCLA team had previously successfully used this technique to enable five paralyzed men to move their legs but the case of Mark Pollock is special because he is the first with such a comprehensive disability to regain voluntary movement even after training with the external electrical stimulation had ended.
Pollock had been totally paralyzed from the waist down for four years after he fell from the second story of a building and injured his spinal cord back in 2010. He used to have a very healthy and active lifestyle and has even won medals at the Commonwealth Games in rowing. But he had to give up his endurance races and rowing in 1998 when he lost his sight in another tragic accident. Life has not been very kind to Mark Pollock but his will to win has enabled him to walk again.
Pollock was given five day training in a robot exoskeleton and a two week muscle training with external stimulation unit. This has not only enabled him to regain some voluntary movement but has improved his cardiovascular activity and muscle tone. The battery powered exoskeleton allows leg movements to propel it step-by-step while the non-invasive external stimulator triggers nerve signals to create leg movements.
Being an ex-athlete, Pollock was naturally very emotional and very excited on being able to use his legs again. “Stepping with the stimulation and having my heart rate increase, along with the awareness of my legs under me, was addictive. I wanted more,” Pollock said.
The system also measures and records the data to determine how much the subject is voluntarily moving and how much help is being provided by the device. This is done by using a robotic device manufactured by Ekso Bionics. Professor V. Reggie Edgerton, neurobiology and neurosurgery expert at UCLA and lead author of the research, believes that if the robot does all the work, the subject becomes passive and nervous system shuts down.
As evident from the video below, Pollock can be seen flexing his left knee during and after electrical stimulation, proving that the device was not doing all the work and that in fact, Pollock was assisting the exoskeleton.
The results of this research were recently published at the 37th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. Professor Edgerton remains very optimistic about the functionality of the whole system claiming that for people who are severely injured but not completely paralyzed, there’s every reason to believe that they will have the opportunity to use these types of interventions to further improve their level of function. While he admits that walking independently after paralysis will be impossible, but usage of such devices will allow those people to live a better and healthy life and they will be able to walk again on their own legs.