Health

Paraplegic Man Walks on Own

Used brain — and computer — to take first steps in 5 years

The small steps Adam Fritz took to travel 12 feet represent a giant leap for humankind.

Fritz, 28, who is paraplegic and gets around in a wheelchair, walked on his own for the first time in five years at the University of California, Irvine in the summer of 2014, a study published in September reported.

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“This is the first instance of locomotion by a paralyzed individual that does not involve an external aid, no mechanical arm, no exoskeleton,” said Christine King, now of University of California, Los Angeles, the study’s lead author and one of the scientists who created the technology.

In able-bodied individuals, the spinal cord relays the brain’s messages to nerves in the legs, which then move the muscles. In paralyzed individuals, the brain loses contact with the spinal cord. The technology developed by King, who has a Ph.D in biomedical engineering, and her team at UC Irvine works by allowing the brain to bypass the spine and talk directly to the legs.

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The instructions were transmitted to the body through a computer that read Fritz’s brain waves through an electrode studded cap he wore via Bluetooth. It then crunched the numbers through algorithm and sent signals to the electrode pads strapped to his legs, directing the motor neurons to contract his leg muscles. When the firing is turned off, the muscles relax and new ones are engaged, leading to the cyclical turning of legs that is walking.

The technology works by allowing the brain to bypass the spine and talk directly to the legs.

Fritz, who recently graduated from college with a degree in archeology in religion, said that “thinking” how to walk was the hardest part of the preparation for the experiment.

Individuals with complete spine injuries “forget” how to walk, King said.

“Able-bodied people don’t ‘think’ about walking, they just do. In paralyzed individuals, the pathways in the brain that govern walking move to a different location because the thoughts have no way of getting to the muscles,” she said.

Fritz trained for six to nine months to learn how to manually express his intention to walk in a way the computer would understand. For six to seven hours, two days a week, he essentially played a video game where he had to focus on making an on-screen avatar move.

“It was really hard,” Fritz said. “When the avatar finally moved on the screen, I was so happy.”

During the experiment, Fritz wore a backpack to hold the computer hardware. Now that the study has shown the technology works, Dr. An Do of UC-Irvine said the next step is to figure out how to make the technology viable in everyday life.

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“We are working on making this technology small so it can be worn in a fanny pack, or even as small as a SIM card or pacemaker that can be implanted in the person,” Do said. “We think it can be applied to a broad range of spinal cord injuries, as well as to stroke victims.”

For Fritz, the 12 feet he walked were the first of what he hopes will be many steps. After a head-on collision with a piece of large furniture that fell out a truck while he was riding a motorcycle on a California freeway, Fritz said was not sure he’d ever walk again.

Now, having gone through the experiment and learning to use the technology, he said it’s a matter “of not if, but when.”

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