'Smart' Bionic Tech Returns Motion to Paralyzed, Amputees

New intelligent bionics and exoskeletons are expected to one day help patients who haven’t used their legs in decades.

From the computerized Indego exoskeleton and the ARGO Medical Rewalk suit to the world’s first “brain-controlled” bionic leg, medical device advancements are helping to reshape the world for paraplegics, stroke victims and other people with disabilities.

Michael Goldfarb, a Vanderbilt mechanical engineer and expert in the field of prosthetic devices, says dramatic advances in technology over the last few years have already breathed new life into the world of prosthetics.

“This provides technology that really minimizes ones disability, improving function and their quality of life,” said Goldfarb, director of the Center for Intelligent Mechatronics and brainchild of the Indego exoskeleton, which was among the 2013 winners of Popular Mechanics’ Breakthrough Awards.

At the same time, emerging tech being studied by university engineers across the world and developed by both tech-savvy startups and conglomerates like Parker Hannifin are better connecting wearable medical devices to the central nervous system.

It's enabling them to better mimic the biological functions of humans,  transforming prosthetics to act smarter and quicker -- as similar as ever to the human body.

“Human biological systems are intelligent, our bodies adapt all of the time,” says Goldfarb. “These devices understand."

Bionic Innovation

Using microcomputers and chips, "smart" bionic parts and exoskeletons are able to communicate with the user and react using real-time data to better mimic human function.

Two major exoskeletons being developed -- Indego and Rewalk -- are among those providing robotic functions through intelligent algorithms to create natural movement, all while helping to reduce muscle atrophy and improve circulation.

After developing the first prototype of the Indego at Vanderbilt for three years, the device was licensed to Parker Hannifin in October 2012 where engineers are working on launching the second generation prototype that will pave the way for commercialization.

The device, which may appear in clinics for rehabilitation purposes as soon as 2015 pending approval but will likely be available for personal use farther down the road, is half the weight of other devices on the market today at just 27 pounds, and can be assembled in parts.

Among Indego’s unique qualities is innovative stimulation technology that enables electrodes to send an electric signal to a patient’s leg muscles, helping to actually build the hamstrings and quadriceps in lower-body paraplegics.

The other device, Rewalk, has already taken the market by storm in Europe and is expected receive FDA approval for personal use in the U.S. within the next few weeks.

Rewalk has been developed over the last decade by Israeli medical device manufacturer Argo Medical Technologies and already is the most widely used by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for wounded soldiers.

“It’s a very active part of their everyday life,” said Argo CEO Larry Jasinski.

Among its unique features is technology that enables a person to walk heel-to-toe motion while pivoting on their heel the way a person with full motion would, making it more natural and less robotic.

Both Indego and Rewalk require crutches for balance, though a free-standing device could eventually be a reality much farther down the road as these technologies evolve, and both are triggered simply by the way a user leans.

Goldfarb has also been behind long-time research that has given birth to the world’s first mind-controlled bionic leg with a powered knee and ankle that act in unison.

The leg – which mimics both the calf and quads of a healthy person’s legs – is tuned to a person’s movements with a chip and can change its functions in real-time, the way a regular leg would.

Last year, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago fashioned the leg with a neural interface, enabling motorcycle victim amputee Zac Vawter to set a record by climbing 103 flights of stairs to the top of Chicago’s Willis Towers.

The device has been licensed to and is expected to be taken to market by Freedom Innovations within the next few years.

Billion-Dollar Market

The devices today are mostly used for people with amputated limbs and spinal cord injuries, but their functionality and use are expected to drastically expand over the next few decades.

Argo is already working on several next-generation exoskeletons, including ones small enough to fit under a person’s clothes and others to be used by quadriplegics.

Jasinski sees the market for these types of smart prosthetics climbing to the billion-dollar range within 20 years.

“The vision of this being something you can use in your everyday life is becoming very real,” he said. “I see this for all different kinds of applications in multiple aspects of life.”

Both Jasinski and Goldfarb compared the evolution of exoskeletons and intelligent prosthetics to the cell phone market. Mobile phones were clunky and basic back in the Zack Morris days, but are now sleek and as intelligent as a computer.

“Prosthetic devices have been fairly primitive over last few decades,” said Goldfarb. “But now we have the ability to make them smart, make them really useful.”