MEDIA RELATIONS OFFICE
JET PROPULSION LABORATORY
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION
PASADENA, CALIF. 91109 TELEPHONE (818) 354-5011
Contacts: Carolina Martinez, JPL (818) 354-9382
Harlan Lebo, UCLA (310) 206-0510
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 11, 2000
NASA ROBOTICS MAY SOON HELP SPINAL CORD PATIENTS TAKE FIRST
NASA engineers and neurophysiologists at the University
of California, Los Angeles, are creating a robot-like device
that could help rehabilitate thousands of Americans with
spinal cord injuries.
"We are developing a prototype robotic stepper device
that, when complete, will be used as part of rehabilitation
that can potentially help some people now wheelchair-bound
take their first steps," said Jim Weiss, program manager for
collaborative neural repair at NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "This system can do the work of
four therapists and help monitor a patient's progress in a
The device, still in the development phase, will look
like a treadmill with robotic arms, and will be fitted with a
harness to support the patient's weight. The arms resemble
knee braces that attach to the patient's leg, guiding the legs
properly on the moving treadmill.
The robotic stepper device is one of several projects in
the Neural Repair Program at the UCLA Brain Research Institute
and JPL. UCLA neurologists now believe that by using the
robotic stepper device in rehabilitation, some patients who
are functionally confined to wheelchairs may be able to learn
to walk again, and those with limited movement could improve
their level of walking.
NASA and UCLA researchers emphasize the robotic stepper
is still in development and is not yet ready for use in
rehabilitation. However, the device could be part of clinical
trials at UCLA in about three years.
"We see tremendous potential for rehabilitation that
uses this form of therapy," said Dr. Reggie Edgerton,
professor in the departments of physiological science and
neurobiology at UCLA.
"Some rehabilitation centers around the world are
starting programs that will allow therapists to train
individuals affected with spinal injuries, stroke and perhaps
other neuromotor disorders to improve their mobility and
stepping capacity," Edgerton said. "This robotic device could
help therapists in those rehabilitation efforts."
Current rehabilitation therapies are labor-intensive and
require up to four therapists. Unlike therapists who only
sense and observe a patient's progress, the robotic device
takes precise measurements of the person's force, speed,
acceleration, and resistance, counting each step the patient
takes. These precise measurements help therapists monitor the
day-to-day progress of their patients and provide valuable
information on the effectiveness of the therapy. These
measurements will be used by a control system that can assist
the robotic stepper device as needed.
JPL robotic engineers have worked alongside therapists to
develop the device, which has highly sensitive sensors that
collect up to 24 different data readings of the patient's
activity. The device, connected to a computer, displays the
information on the screen for the therapist to monitor.
According to Weiss, this same device could also someday
be useful to astronauts and help them walk safely after
prolonged periods in space, such as extended missions on the
International Space Station.
JPL and UCLA are actively pursuing efforts to
commercialize the robotic system. JPL technically supported
UCLA in filing a patent application in August.
"Many technologies developed at NASA for space
exploration have tremendous medical applications. We can
provide practical solutions based on our engineering
experience," said Dr. Antal Bejczy, senior research scientist
and lead engineer on the robotic stepper device at JPL.
JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of
Technology in Pasadena.