Robotic device could help people walk again

November 14, 2001

BY JIM RITTER HEALTH REPORTER


Dr. Suzy Kim, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since a body surfing accident four years ago, took a walk Tuesday morning.

Kim was supported by a harness as a computerized robotic device moved her legs on a treadmill in a remarkably natural gait.

"It feels great," she said. "I've been sitting for a long time."

The walking machine is called Lokomat, and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago is testing whether the system can help train people with partial spinal cord injuries to walk again.

"A new world of possibilities now exists for these patients," said Dr. David Chen, medical director of the spinal cord injury program.

In many spinal cord injuries, the cord is badly bruised but not severed. Some patients can walk using braces or walkers. Research has shown that assisted walking helps retrain the spinal cord to walk.

"We're trying to train them in a normal gait pattern," physical therapist David Zemon said.

The Rehab Institute plans a two-year clinical trial of the experimental system, which has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for general use.

In addition to training the spinal cord, Lokomat could strengthen muscles and improve circulation. The weight-bearing exercise also might help prevent osteoporosis. About 50 percent to 60 percent of body weight is borne by the patient.

Lokomat could make physical therapy easier and more efficient, Zemon said. In one existing method, a patient is suspended over a treadmill while two therapists laboriously move the legs. By contrast, Lokomat's robotic arms move the patient's legs. Motors are attached to a computer, which adjusts the gait.

During a typical session, Kim walks for about 45 minutes at a speed of about 1-1/2 mph. Since she began using the machine a month ago, she has felt more sensation in her legs. She hopes that the walking therapy, combined with other emerging therapies and treatments, some day might enable her to walk again on her own.

In the meantime, working out on the Lokomat is bringing back fond memories. "It makes me feel whole," she said. "It reminds me of the time when I enjoyed running and working out on the treadmill."