Bionics help wheelchair users gain mobility

November 24, 2011

What seems like science fiction is now a reality for Jean Altomari, who was paralyzed from the waist down after a jeep accident in Cancun.

She had not taken a step in two years until she was equipped with a motorized exoskeleton called Rewalk.

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.

"It feels like I'm standing up on my own power," Altomari said. "It feels like I am leaning forward. I'm deciding I'm going to stand up. And I just stand up."

Dr. Alberto Esquenazi of ,MossRehab Gait & Motion Analysis Lab said Rewalk has motors that move the hips and knees "and allows an individual who is paralyzed to walk."

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, 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's called Tongue Drive, 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 smart phone.

"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 Dr. Maysam Ghovanloo of the Georgia Institute of Technology

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

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

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 underway for patients to test out the Tongue Drive in their homes.

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