Individuals with spinal injuries may soon have another mobility-enhancing option

Jul 26 2011
For some injured individuals, spinal surgery may provide a good therapeutic option and allow them to regain some or all of their mobility.

However, in certain cases, surgical interventions fail and patients end up confined to a wheelchair, which has traditionally been associated with limited movement options. Fortunately, research conducted at academic centers around the world in recent years has resulted in improvements that may increase these individuals' independence and quality of life.

Scientists from the University of Essex in the UK have announced the development of a system that allows for a hands-free control of electrically powered wheelchairs. What is interesting is that the technology is relatively inexpensive - something that is important given the escalating healthcare costs - as it relies on a webcam and a headband to control the steering and propulsion.

The team created a software program that relies on recognition and analysis of bio-signals - such as winking and jaw clenching - that are sent from the user's forehead through the headband that is equipped with electromyography sensors. Different combinations of winking and jaw clenching have been mapped to control six different commands on the wheelchair.

Results of initial indoor testing using a group of subjects showed that all of them were able to control their wheelchairs, which included obstacle navigation and following a specific route.

"There are so many different kinds of disability. Therefore, we need to develop different kinds of assistive technology for people to choose," said researcher Huosheng Hu, from the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering at the University of Essex.

He added that the technology could be customized to suit the needs of individual wheelchair users, who may have specific facial characteristics or different muscular deficits.

This research project follows a recent announcement from the U.S. about a robotic exoskeleton developed by researchers from the University of California Berkeley's Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory.

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

This idea, just like the wink-and-jaw operated wheelchair, has the advantage of being cost effective. The California researchers said that existing exoskeletons cost approximately $100,000 each, but theirs will be significantly cheaper and therefore more accessible.

Estimates from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation suggest that some 6 million Americans are living with paralysis.