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Technological Breakthroughs from 2016: Can Virtual Reality Help Paraplegics Regain Mobility?

Technological Breakthroughs from 2016:  Can Virtual Reality Help Paraplegics Regain Mobility?

Last month we reported on many positive stories from 2016 —good news that you might not have heard:  Desalination plants bringing water to the desert, the elimination of measles in all of the Americas, infant mortality rates decreasing in Russia and life expectancy increasing in Africa. Great strides were made in the areas of world health, conservation, and, not surprisingly, technology. This is certainly an era of astonishing technological advancement; the science fiction of yesteryear is the reality of this year. From smartphones to smart watches to smart homes, technology is changing the way we live. And sometimes in amazing ways .  .  .

Data Storage that could last forever?

Scientists at the University of Southampton have created five-dimensional (5D) nanostructured glass digital data discs that can store 360 TB of data and last virtually forever (they can survive for basically 13.8 billion years). The size of a quarter, the discs store data in nanostructures created in fused quartz. To put 360 TB of data storage in perspective, here’s how much we’re talking about: The first floppy disk had a storage capacity of 80 kilobytes. 1 kilobyte is 1,000 bytes (or 1,024). In 1986, IBM introduced the 3-1/2 inch floppy disk with 1.44 megabytes of storage space (1 megabyte is 1,000 kilobytes).  And that seemed like an amazing amount of storage at the time.  Now, multiply that megabyte by 1,000 to reach a gigabyte. And multiply by 1,000 again to reach a terabyte. So, that 360 TB is like 360 bytes . . . with 12 zeros after it. Think of it . . . the entire history of humankind can be preserved for future generations and for all time. University of Southampton



Technology is being used in remarkable ways to help combat paralysis. Here are three examples:

A microchip implanted in his brain is helping a spinal cord injury patient use his arm again. 

Nonprofit research firm Battelle, who developed the technology called NeuroLife, has partnered with neuroscientists and physicians from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Neurological Institute to test the technology. 24-year-old Ian Burkhart, paralyzed from the chest down by a spinal cord injury, has been able to move his right arm simply with the power of thought. The microchip in his brain connects to electrodes in his arm. So, just by thinking about it, he has been able to hold a phone to his ear, pick up a spoon, slide a credit card, pour a drink. The chip (with wired connection) carries Ian’s brain signals through a computer to a cuff of electrodes on his arm, which sends pulses to his muscles to move his wrist and hand. This technology holds tremendous promise for paralyzed patients. Wexner Medical Center Neurological Institute.


The Ekso Bionic GT Suit has been cleared by the FDA for use with stroke and spinal cord injury patients.

The Ekso GT “is a wearable robotic exoskeleton that enables individuals to stand up and walk over ground with a full weight bearing . . . To date, the Ekso has helped patients take more than 41 million steps in over 115 rehabilitation institutions around the world." Ekso Bionics. 


Along with these incredible advancements using technology to assist paralyzed patients comes a remarkable, even revolutionary new treatment.

Virtual Reality is Helping Paralyzed Patients Regain Movement and Feeling.

Eight long-term paralysis patients, each with severe spinal cord injuries, have been participating in a groundbreaking study with neuroscientists at Duke University. The eight patients, all of whom have been paralyzed for at least five years (one has been paralyzed for 13 years), began working with Virtual Reality headsets to move digital representations of themselves, using only their thoughts. After the patients made progress with controlling their virtual bodies, they began to use a brain-controlled robotic exoskeleton to move their real bodies. This Brain-Machine interface allowed the patients to “walk” with the help of the exoskeleton as the controlled the machine with their minds. 

“However, the most thrilling aspect of the study was completely unexpected. After using the exoskeleton, some patients started to regain some sensation and some muscle movement on their own.” “Researchers theorize that their intense training protocol may trigger an “awakening” of the surviving nerves that remain intact below the spinal cord injury level but are dormant. “I am very hopeful that we will be able to share these details with spinal rehab centers around the world," Nicolelis said. “If it works with spinal cord injuries, it may work with other injuries such as stroke."  ABC News.

All of the patients who kept up with the training regained some feeling and motor skills below their injuries. Four of the patients have been upgraded from complete paralysis to partial paralysis.


For more information about this remarkable technological breakthrough, check out these articles:

ABC News. Virtual Reality and Exoskeleton help Paraplegics partially recover.

NBC News. 8 Paralyzed patients regain movement, feeling with VR.

CNN. Paralyzed Patients Regain Muscle Control with the help of Virtual Reality.

Quartz Media. Paraplegics are learning to walk again with virtual reality.

New Scientist: Mind-Control Exoskeleton Gives Unprecedented Paralysis Recovery.