Healthbeat Report: Bionic Breakthroughs

December 2, 2011 4:41:39 AM PST
Many of us take the ability to move freely for granted. But for hundreds of thousands of Americans living with spinal cord injuries that freedom is no longer a given. However, steps are being made thanks to new technology.

Robotic legs are allowing those who never thought they would walk again to take another step. Although it seems like science fiction, it's now reality for Jean Altomari.

"It feels like I'm 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 a motorized exoskeleton called rewalk, Altomari had not taken a step in two years.

Along with mobility issues, life in a wheel chair can impact overall health. Serious problems with the urinary, respiratory, cardiovascular and digestive systems are common with long-term wheelchair use.

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

"It has motors that basically move your hips and knees and allow an individual who is paralyzed, usually teh waist down, to walk," said Dr. Alberto Esquenazi, MossRehab Gait & Motion Analysis Lab.

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

But for some of the 118,000 people in the U.S. who 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.

"This is the only technology as far as we know that can help a potential user to access computers, drive wheelchairs, control their environment - all with one single device," said Maysam Ghovanloo, Ph.D., Georgia Institute of Technology.

An operating system called Tongue Drive works through a tiny magnet piercing the tongue. By touching different teeth, the user sends commands through the headset to be processed by a smart phone.

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

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

It may seem obvious but researchers are also watching to see how these devices can help boost emotional well being.

"It's real exciting," said DiSanto.

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