With device’s aid, the paralyzed take steps anew

Published: September 15, 2011  |  Source: boston.com
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Rehabilitation facilities test robotic exoskeleton

David Leone left behind his familiar wheelchair, shifting himself onto a chair where a robotic external skeleton fitted to his 5-foot-11-inch frame sat waiting. Half a dozen people scurried around him, cinching Velcro straps tight around his legs and torso. He grabbed the handles of a walker, leaned forward, and hoisted himself to his feet.

Seven years after he last walked, Leone – paralyzed from the waist down – lifted his right foot and took a step, with the robotic technology moving his limbs.

The 37-year-old from Millis kept on going, racking up 284 steps in a 42-minute session this week at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.

“It’s a steep learning curve,’’ he said afterward. “It felt a little awkward at first. But there were a couple of times where it just felt … normal.’’

Leone, paralyzed since he fell backward off a ladder in 2004, is among the first people with spinal cord injuries to try out eLEGS. The robotic technology, developed by a California company called Berkeley Bionics, is undergoing investigational studies at Spaulding and nine other rehabilitation centers.

The device is completely external, initially with steps triggered by pushing a button on a remote control. That spurs the device’s computer to coordinate the complicated choreography of a step, utilizing motors and sensors at the knees and hips. The machine does all the work, but it’s up to the patient to learn again how to walk, how to lean forward into the opposite foot, how to move with confidence when there is no feedback from the lower half of your body.

Spaulding is piloting the technology on six patients this week, with plans to begin using the device next year, after a version becomes available for use at hospitals and rehab centers.

“Traditionally, there was not very much’’ to offer patients with spinal cord injuries, said Dr. Ross Zafonte, vice president of research, education, and medical affairs at Spaulding. “Now, we’re talking about a real mechanism, an exoskeleton mechanism, for getting people to walk.’’

Researchers looking for ways to help people with spinal cord injuries are moving forward on multiple fronts, ranging from biological approaches aimed at regenerating injured tissue, to protective approaches that minimize the damage in the immediate aftermath of an injury, to engineering approaches that use robotics or implanted technology to restore mobility. The research, however, is still at an early stage in many of these areas.

The eLEGS device will initially be used only at hospitals, although the company plans to make it available for home and personal use. Company officials would not say how much it would eventually cost. But it ultimately may work best in combination with other technologies.

By Carolyn Y. Johnson, Globe Staff