It wasn't far -- mere yards -- but when Mark Pollock recently took his first steps in four years, it represented a major victory for scientists who work at the intersection of medical science and engineering.
Pollock -- who is 39 and from Northern Ireland -- was paralyzed from the waist down after falling from a second-story window in 2010.
The idea of a using a mechanical exoskeleton as a way of enhancing what the human body can do has been popularized in everything from "Avatar" to "Iron Man," but Pollock is the first time a person with complete paralysis to regain enough control to use the device.
Researcher Parag Gad from the University of California at Los Angeles and his co-authors said they first treated Pollock with a type of electrical current at selected sites in his spinal cord vertebrate to try to reactivate neurons and put him through a series of physical therapy sessions. According to the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, which provided funding for the study, Pollock "reported feeling tension and tingling in his lower limbs during the exercises." They also noticed he was sweating on the skin on his lower back and legs -- a phenomenon he hadn't experienced since his injury.
Next the scientists fitted him with a suit with robotic controls. Developed by a California company called Ekso Bionics, the device helps the wearer move in a step-like fashion.
Writing in a paper presented at the proceedings of the 47th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society this week, Gad said the team found that spinal-cord stimulation enhanced the level of effort that the subject could generate while stepping in the exoskeleton."
"Based on this case study it appears that there is considerable potential" for this type of technology.
"It will be difficult to get people with chronic, complete paralysis to walk completely independently, but even if they don't accomplish that, the fact they can assist themselves in walking will greatly improve their overall health and quality of life," V. Reggie Edgerton, senior author and a UCLA professor of integrative biology, said in a statement. "For people who are severely injured but not with complete paralysis there's every reason to believe they could improve even more with these types of interventions.