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Technology Provides Hope for Paralyzed Vets

By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 7, 2009 – With immobility causing degeneration in the bones, joints, heart, lungs and skin of tens of thousands of disabled veterans, scientists are developing equipment that could get them back on their feet.

Ronald Triolo, a senior research scientist with the Veterans Affairs Department, discussed the creation of an innovative bracing system to provide enhanced mobility and improve the quality of life for paraplegics during an Aug. 5 webcast of “Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military” on Pentagon Web radio.

Hundreds of thousands of people living in the United States have spinal cord injuries, and some 50,000 of those are veterans, said Triolo, who also is a professor at Case Western Reserve University and director of The Cleveland Advanced Platform Technology Center for Excellence and associate director of the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation Center.

The ultimate goal of his research, Triolo said, is to develop a hybrid neuroprosthesis – a foot-to-chest orthotic with joints that allows users to stand, walk, and climb stairs safely and efficiently with minimal effort. Hybrid prostheses would allow the interface of electrical stimulation and flexible bracing of muscles to provide strength and structural support to paraplegics in the hope of allowing them to walk.

“With the hybrid approach, [we] take the best of both worlds and make something that’s greater than its individual parts,” said, who holds a doctorate in biomedical engineering. “If we can take a brace and make it flexible … and power movement by electrical stimulation, then we can achieve more fluid motion, and maybe achieve such functions as stair climbing.”

The main goal, he said, is long-distance walking. Currently, braces provide limited speed and motion –to walk faster, the user has to take little steps rather than longer strides. The new hybrid device should allow people to adjust the length of their steps and walk at faster speeds, Triolo said.

It also would allow one leg to remain rigid while the other bends, making upward and downward steps possible.

The biggest advances, Triolo said, have come at the hip and knees. Developments have to start with the hip and move outward to ensure movements are natural and fluid, he explained. The hip device, which Triolo calls his “crowning achievement” thus far, allows for muscle reciprocation: as the left side moves, the right side moves counter to it, as one’s hip would normally rotate.

“The unique thing about this particular design is it allows that coupling between the left and right sides to vary with the task at hand,” he said. “If someone is walking faster, it allows them to take longer steps. If someone wants to keep one leg stiff and flex the other hip and knee to ascend a stair, it allows that to be accomplished.”

Triolo also is working on replacing traditional rigid torso braces with more flexible ones to allow more torso movement, as well as an ankle device that will allow the leg to push off the ground and pick the foot up so it doesn’t drag with each brace-assisted step.

As he advances his testing, Triolo said, he wants to recreate a natural walking motion for people suffering from spinal injuries. And for the thousands of people affected by those injuries, it might be a reason -- and a method -- to stand up and cheer.

(Ian Graham works for the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)

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"Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military" on Pentagon Web Radio

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