Wearable cyborgs that drive the muscles with brain waves

Kristen Sorensen was 55 years old when she was paralyzed last year from the neck down. 
“It came from nowhere,” Sorensen says. “I would have been great with exercised every day, but then it just began to tingle in my fingertips.”

Diagnosed with Guillain Barre syndrome in October 2018, a neurological condition affecting the nervous system of the body, she never expected to walk again.

Yet earlier that year, in Jacksonville, Florida, the Brooks Cybernic Treatment Center became the first US center to use a revolutionary treatment technology developed in Japan — the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL).

HAL— effectively a wearable cyborg— helps people with spinal cord injuries and muscle dystrophy recover their mobility and improve their nerves and muscles. Known as exoskeletons, they are a form of lightweight suit that serves as a mechanical muscle, with joints driven by small electric motors.

A certified physiotherapist at the Brooks Center helped fit her HAL over her waist and shoes, connecting her to sensors that help pick up subtle bio-electric signals on the skin surface, signaling the intention of a person to move. Once these signals are received by HAL, it helps support the movements of the person.

But you can’t just put on HAL and expect in seconds to be sprinting. Rehabilitation requires a physiotherapist’s time, determination, and help, as well as a body weight harness that ensures patients are supported and maintained upright while using HAL on a treadmill. Physiotherapists keep a log of the movements of each patient and the settings used— from walking to jogging mode during that practice.

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