In a first, a robotic exoskeleton device has enabed a 39-year-old former athlete, who had been completely paralysed for four years, to control his leg muscles and take thousands of steps, scientists in the United States said.

This is the first time that a person with chronic, complete paralysis has regained enough voluntary control to actively work with a robotic device designed to enhance mobility , said researchers. In addition to the device, the man was aided by a novel non-invasive spinal stimulation technique that does not require surgery . The athlete’s leg movements also resulted in other health benefits, including improved cardiovascular function and muscle tone.

The new approach combines a battery-powered wearable bionic suit that enables people o move their legs in a step-like fashion, with a non-invasive procedure that the researchers had previously used to enable five paralytic men to move their egs in rhythmic motion.

In the latest study, the researchers treated Mark Pollock, who lost his sight in 1998 and later became the first blind man race to the South Pole.

In 2010, Pollock fell from a second-story window and suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralysed from the waist down.

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The researchers do not describe the achievement as “walking”, because no one who is completely paralysed has independently walked in absence of he robotic device and electrical stimulation of the spinal cord.

At UCLA, Pollock made substantial progress after receiving a few weeks of physical raining without spinal stimulation and then just five days of spinal stimulation training in a one-week span, for about an hour a day . “It will be difficult to get people with complete para ysis 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 li e,” said V Reggie Edgerton, a UCLA professor. The robotic device manufac tured by California-based Ekso Bionics captures data tha enables the researchers to de termine how much the subjec is moving his own limbs, as op posed to being aided by the device. The data showed that Pol lock was actively flexing his lef knee and raising his left leg and during and after the electrica stimulation, he was able to voluntarily assist the robot du ring stepping.

“For people severely injured but not completely paralysed there’s every reason to believe that they will have the opportu nity to use these types of interventions to further improve their level of function,” Edger ton said.

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