Engineering marvel allows paralyzed USC graduate to walk on stage

May 23 2011
Severe spine injuries are among the most devastating conditions and may lead to significant disability, despite numerous modern spine surgery and rehabilitation options. 

However, technological advances are allowing individuals who would normally be confined to a wheelchair to achieve a greater level of mobility, and perhaps even walk again.

For example, during the recent graduation season, Americans all over the country were inspired by the story of Austin Whitney, a paraplegic graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, who was able to walk to receive his diploma.

Whitney, who was paralyzed from the waist down in the wake of a 2007 car accident, participated in a testing project of a robotic exoskeleton developed by researchers at his university. The team hopes it will assist paralyzed individuals in gaining greater independence and mobility despite their disability.

The device is operated via a switch on a person's regular walker. It consists of a backpack-like frame that is connected to the legs and moves them in such a way that it does not put undue stress on the muscles.

"We've designed this system to be ergonomic, highly maneuverable and technically robust, so the wearer can walk, squat, bend and swing from side to side without noticeable reductions in agility," said chief inventor Homayoon Kazerooni, professor of mechanical engineering and director of UC Berkeley's Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory.

The idea may not be new, but existing exoskeletons cost approximately $100,000 a piece, according to the UC Berkeley News Center. So the researchers are hoping that their invention - which is called BLEEX for the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton - will be significantly cheaper and thus more accessible to individuals in need.

Estimates from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation suggest that some 6 million Americans are living with paralysis, significantly more than previously thought.