Man Uses Thought-Controlled Bionic Leg To Climb Chicago’s Willis Tower [Videos]

We previously reported that Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) research participant Zac Vawter was to make history as the first man to climb Chicago’s Willis Tower with the aid of a thought-controlled bionic leg. Now we can report that Vawter and his bionic leg have indeed achieved this historic feat, providing hope for handicapped amputees the world over.

Vawter accomplished his feat on November 4, 2011 by climbing 103 floors of Chicago’s Willis Tower using the world’s first ever bionic leg controlled completely by a user’s thoughts. The 31-year-old Seattle native was joined by nearly 3,000 others in the event, which benefited further RIC research.

Vawter lost his leg in a motorcycle accident three years ago and received the bionic leg procedure when his leg was amputated, becoming part of RIC’s unique research trial about a year ago.

“One of the biggest difference for me is being able to take stairs step-over-step like everyone else,” said Vawter. “With my standard prosthesis, I have to take every step with my good foot first and sort of lift or drag the prosthetic leg up. With the bionic leg, it’s simple, I take stairs like I used to, and can even take two at a time.”

The Willis Tower event, called SkyRise Chicago, raises funds for RIC’s revolutionary research, which could potentially benefit hundreds-of-thousands of amputees across the US.

“There are approximately 600,000 individuals with lower limb amputation in the United States, and we are hopeful that this neural-controlled technology will allow for more ability and more long-term independence,“ said Levi Hargrove, Ph.D., director of the neural engineering for Prosthetics & Orthotics Lab within RIC’s Center for Bionic Medicine. “Our integrated team of clinicians, prosthetists and engineers are very excited to have climbed with Zac Sunday.”

The work on the bionic leg is the result of a grant from the Department of Defense Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, which is aimed at improving control of advanced robotic prostheses by adding neural control to the systems. This work is a collaborative effort lead by RIC’s Center for Bionic Medicine, also including the University of New Brunswick, Vanderbilt University, MIT, and URI.