Even though the body may be paralyzed, the spinal cord never forgets how to walk. And though he’s been wheelchair-bound for five years, Irishman Mark Pollack kept in shape just in case scientists figured out how to get him back on two feet again someday.
And now they have.
Last spring, Pollack became the guinea pig in a remarkable experiment at UCLA that combines electrical stimulation with robotics to help paralyzed people walk again, the Los Angeles Times reported. Essentially, a robotic exoskeleton was strapped to the 39-year-old’s body and began to awaken the nerves that help him walk.
After five days using the exoskeleton, the paralyzed man was “actively flexing his left knee and rais(ing) his left leg and… during and after the electrical stimulation, he was able to voluntarily assist the robot during stepping,” the Belfast Telegraph reported.
For Pollock, the experience was a return to his life before his injury.
“It felt, like, right. It felt like it used to feel.”
He is no stranger to adversity. A motivational speaker and lifelong athlete, Pollack went blind at age 22 and in 2010 fell out of a second-story window. Broken bones sliced through his spinal cord in two places, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Before the devastating injury, he participated in endurance trials and adventures races all over the world, including the South Pole.
For four years after his injury, Pollack kept up with rehab before heading to UCLA to start the robotics experiment that may help him walk again. Before he arrived, he learned to wear and use a bionic suit called an Ekso. The exoskeleton suit is outfitted with sensors and motors, which can measure how much assistance the paralyzed patient needs. Then it does the rest of the work, helping the patient walk.
At UCLA, Mark’s spinal cord was stimulated with electricity for five hours a day. Five days later, when he strapped on the Ekso, something began to happen. His leg muscles tensed, then tingled. His heart raced. He started to sweat from the effort. Then he could stand, his legs loosened, and his digestion improved. Over a week, he took thousands of steps in the exoskeleton — and kept going for two weeks afterward.
“That was a very exciting, emotional moment for me, having spent my whole adult life before breaking my back as an athlete. Stepping with the stimulation and having my heart rate increase, along with the awareness of my legs under me, was addictive. I wanted more.”
Reggie Edgerton, who runs the robotics lab where Mark took his first steps, said electrical stimulation via the exoskeleton seems to wake up the nerves in the spinal cord of a paralyzed person. Without the brain’s involvement, the spinal cord automatically knows what to do.
“After the injury there’s a lot of functional capability that remains. But it has to do some relearning,” he said.
As this relearning process progresses, the exoskeleton senses that the patient needs less help walking and eases up on the stepping power. Mark will continue this innovative therapy back at home for the next year, but whether or not he’ll one day be able to walk without is unknown. And of course, that’s the goal.
[Photo Courtesy YouTube screengrab]