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Robotics give spinal-cord injury sufferers new independence

November 21, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Nearly 250,000 Americans are living with a spinal-cord injury. And for more than half, that means losing the use of their legs or arms. But some remarkable researchers have developed devices that are helping many with severe injuries become more independent.

For people with spinal-cord injuries, loss of mobility most often means feeling dependent on others. But now, between robotics and computer microchips, scientists are offering new possibilities and helping patients to move around and become more independent than ever before.

She thought she'd never walk again. It seems like science fiction. Now it's reality for Jean Altomari.

"It feels like I am standing up on my own power," said Altomari.

A Cancun dream vacation turned into a nightmare when a Jeep accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. Before trying a new motorized exoskeleton called ReWalk, Altomari had not taken a step in two years.

"It feels like I'm leaning forward and I'm deciding I'm going to stand up. And I just stand up," said Altomari.

Patients wear a small computer and use a remote control on the wrist to tell the ReWalk suit to stand up. It receives feedback from motion sensors at the joints. The result has Altomari moving on her own.

But some people can't use their arms or legs. Even moving their wheelchair can be an insurmountable task.

A diving accident left Jason DiSanto paralyzed from the shoulders down. Now he's one of the first to test-drive new technology that could change his world.

"It can help a potential user to access computers, drive wheelchairs, control their environment, all with one single device," said Maysam Ghovanloo, associate professor, Georgia Institute of Technology.

It's called the Tongue Drive System, an operating system that works through a tiny magnet piercing the tongue.

By touching different teeth, the user sends commands through the headset to be processed by a smartphone.

"So to initiate, for example, a 'right' command, they would hit their tooth over here on the right side, so, you know, just a simple tap of the tongue," said Shepherd Center study coordinator Erica Sutton.

"It's a big deal for anybody that's bound in a wheelchair because it gives you more independence," said DiSanto.

The ReWalk is FDA-approved for use in rehabilitation centers and is expected to be ready for consumers in 2012.

A clinical trial is now under way for patients to test out the Tongue Drive in their homes.

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