Robotic Exoskeletons May Be the Future of Therapy for Spinal Cord Injuries

According to a publication from The Inside Press, researchers at the Burke Neurological Institute in White Plains, New York recently conducted a clinical trial focused on the potential use of robotics in treating spinal cord injuries.

Amy Bialek, with the Institute’s Lower Limb Robotics Program, is heading a research team experimenting with a number of devices and robots they hope might help patients with damaged nervous systems.

Robotics May Bring About Significant Short, Long-Term Results

When she was just 19, Jamie Petrone woke up one morning and found she couldn’t stand from her bed. Physicians discovered that a prescribed medication Petrone was been taking had prompted a serious allergic reaction. Petrone developed Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a serious condition of the skin and mucous membranes that results in the death, shedding, and recovery of cells in an affected area. Stevens-Johnson alone requires hospitalization, but it wouldn’t explain Petrone’s inability to remove herself from bed.

It took physicians almost a decade to diagnose Petrone with transverse myelopathy (TM), a condition characterized by impaired spinal cord function. Unlike cases of myelitis, a commonly confused condition, myelopathy is not caused by any underlying inflammatory condition of the spine.

Petrone is 42 now, and uses a wheelchair to get around. When she learned that trials were underway at the BNI robotics lab, she jumped at the opportunity to participate.

At the Lower Limb Robotics Program, Petrone was equipped with EKSO, a battery-powered exoskeleton that helps non-walking individuals stand and walk on even surfaces. Scientists at BNI think robotic assistance devices, combined with new drug therapies, are part of the future in restored human mobility.

EKSO looks kind of like a high-tech backpack with motorized crutches built-in. When Petrone and other patients are using the device, it helps them stand upright and ambulate.

Beyond simply providing improved mobility through the use of a powered exoskeleton, researchers believe the suits could provide meaningful physiological benefit. Amy Bialek, a physical therapist and leader of the robotics program, noted that she believed EKSO helped to rebuild neural pathways controlling motion through what is essentially assisted physical therapy.

EKSO is just one of a number of therapeutic devices/robots being tested at BNI’s robotics program. Devices similar to EKSO are helping patients restore their mobility in a number of other areas, such as the hands, wrists, and arms.

“…These restorative programs could make a real difference in people’s lives,” Petrone earlier said. “I felt like I had wasted years of my life in this wheelchair. Why didn’t I know about these therapies?”

Change however, may be coming. The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, recently awarded the nonprofit NeuroCuresNY, Inc. a $5 million grant to study the use of drugs and EKSO-like robotic technologies in repairing neurological damage caused by conditions like Alzheimer’s, stroke, or spinal cord injuries.

What do you think of this science fiction-like treatment? Exoskeletons like EKSO may be expensive — what do you think their most practical application would be? Share your thoughts with Patient Worthy!

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