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Improvements in robotic legs for spinal cord injury victims

Spinal cord injury victims often endure months and years of rehabilitation. In the most severe cases, patients suffer from permanent disability and paralysis. Scientific breakthroughs in robotic legs are bringing hope to spinal cord injury patients who have suffered in motor vehicle accidents, workplace accidents, and from falls or collisions. For victims in New York and nationwide, the new research could pave the way to mobility.

This week, researchers from the University of Arizona published a paper describing the development of a new type of robot leg that mimics the neuromuscular architecture of human walking. Unlike earlier, more awkward and clunky robotic legs, the new technology allows the legs to "think" about walking the same way that humans do.

Robotic legs have been installed with sensors at the bottom of the "feet" to direct the legs. They also send feedback telling whether the legs are touching the ground, heading uphill, or descending a slope. The robotic legs have internal position sensors to pull on the leg "muscles."

Sensory feedback from our environment is being collected by our lower limbs and sent to a network of neurons in the spinal cord. This process allows us to monitor our gait, stay even and steady, and walk without having to think consciously. The robotic legs use human legs as a model.

New versions of robotic legs allow them to quickly adapt to changes in the environment and make necessary adjustments. Researchers hope that studying the neuroscience of walking can benefit those with spinal cord injuries.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Scientists make robotic legs that move like ours do," Deborah Netburn, July 7, 2012.