Saturday, February 17, 2007

Exoskeletons, Injuries and a Walk in the Park

tidbits that tantalize

OK -

Here Comes


Wow, what a year. Last year at this time, just after the wreck, things looked pretty bleak. One minute you were on your way to a friend's and, the next thing you knew, it was two days later in the ICU. But, you were alive and your family was there with you.

The doctors said you "were lucky" - a phrase repeated rather routinely in the ICU by those standing on two legs. While your spinal cord had been severely damaged, it had not been severed. There was still hope.

Still, it would've been nice if you could have raised your legs, moved your ankles, wiggled your toes...

But, believe it or not, the doctors were right. You were lucky.

You finish stretching and join the others on the little path that winds through the park. No, you won't be setting any land-speed records, but when you throw the switch on your Exo-5000 RoboLeg you'll have no problem keeping up. As a matter of fact, you're feeling pretty good today and may even kick it into overdrive for a lap or two - it's always fun to watch the wide-eyed kids as you chugga-chugga-chug on past...

In developments befitting the Terminator, the University of Michigan's Human Neuromechanics Lab has developed a "lower limb robotic exoskeleton." The exotic device is controlled by the wearer's own nervous system and is intended for use by those suffering partial spinal cord injuries, strokes and muscle-weakening illnesses.

Similar devices have been used in the past to help rehabilitate patients. Those devices, however, were the drivers of the action, actively moving an injured limb in an attempt to retrain the body. The new device takes a somewhat contrarian approach to rehabilitation.

The new device is passive - it only acts after receiving signals from the wearer's brain via electrodes that monitor the body's electrical impulses. This allows both the mind and the body to participate in the rehabilitation process.

The device holds amazing promise for those with damaged or weakened limbs that are still functional. Utilizing pneumatics, the device assists the wearer in a manner that increases strength while allowing the user to maintain control and direct the activity in a natural manner. With practice, utilizing the device may seem no more unusual than slipping on a favorite pair of jeans.

Ah... What a great walk. You step off the path, grab your water bottle and head for home. A satisfied smile crosses your face as you consider how far you've come in the last year. You take a quick look over your shoulder at the path, chuckle and whisper your current favorite phrase, "I'll be back..."

To read more about the robotic exoskeleton, see this from ScienceDaily and the University of Michigan's Human Neuromechanics Lab.


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