Assisting Assistive Devices
The fields of neuroprosthetics and neurorehabilitation have made tremendous strides in recent years at restoring function and mobility to people with neurological disorders like paralysis or disabilities such as amputation of upper or lower extremities. But despite the progress, there is still much work that needs to be done to return these individuals to a higher level of function.
At the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., several neurotech researchers in fields such as functional electrical stimulation, limb prosthetics, neurorobotics, and brain-computer interfaces participated in a session devoted to this problem. The speakers included Robert Riener from ETH Zurich, Ron Triolo from Case Western Reserve University, and Kyu Jin Cho from Seoul National University in South Korea.
While it is not clear which technology will prove most useful in restoring function to people with disabilities, we find it encouraging that researchers and clinicians can avail themselves of a range of neurotech strategies. Indeed, we think that FES, epidural stimulation paired with focused rehabilitation, and robotic exoskeletons represent a strategic triad that our nation must exploit to overcome paralysis. Perhaps there will come a day when paralyzed individuals regain lost function with the help of all three approaches.
For these reasons, we were pleased to learn about a forthcoming event that will explore the current limits of assistive technology and gauge the effectiveness of different neurotech approaches to functional restoration. During his talk at AAAS, Riener from ETH Zurich described the Cybathlon, a one-day Olympic-style competition that offers awards for both disabled users and the research teams helping them overcome their disabilities. The event, which will take place October 8 in Zurich, is comprised of different disciplines that test the ability of disabled “pilots” to navigate a series of everyday tasks while using assistive devices and robotic technologies.
Riener founded the event as a platform for developing and benchmarking novel assistive technologies useful for the daily life of persons with motor disabilities. Six different events will test the performance of different categories of assistive devices: an obstacle course with motorized leg prostheses; an agility course with motorized arm prostheses; a powered exoskeleton race; an obstacle course with electric wheelchairs; a bike race with electrical muscle stimulation; and a BCI computer game. Already, 54 teams have signed up for the competition.
We applaud the creative thinking that went into the planning for the Cybathlon and hope to see events and initiatives like this in the U.S. in the years ahead.
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