Michael Braukus

Headquarters, Washington, DC

(Phone: 202/358-1979)

Carolina Martinez

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA

(Phone: 818/354-9382)

Harlan Lebo

University of California, Los Angeles

(Phone: 310/206-0510)

RELEASE: 00-194

NASA engineers and University of California, Los Angeles
(UCLA), neurophysiologists are creating a robot-like device that
could help rehabilitate thousands of Americans with spinal cord

“We are developing a prototype robotic stepper device that when
complete will be used as part of rehabilitation that can
potentially help some people now wheelchair-bound take their first
steps,” said Jim Weiss, program manager for collaborative neural
repair at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, CA.
“This system can do the work of four therapists and help monitor a
patient’s progress in a controlled manner.”

The device, still in the development phase, will look like a
treadmill with robotic arms, and will be fitted with a harness to
support the patient’s weight. The arms resemble knee braces that
attach to the patient’s leg, guiding the legs properly on the
moving treadmill.

The robotic stepper device is one of several projects in the
Neural Repair Program at the UCLA Brain Research Institute and
JPL. UCLA neurologists now believe that by using the robotic
stepper device in rehabilitation, some patients functionally
confined to wheelchairs may be able to learn to walk again, and
those with limited movement could improve their level of walking.

NASA and UCLA researchers emphasize the robotic stepper is still
in development and is not yet ready for use in rehabilitation.
However, the device could be part of clinical trials at UCLA in
about three years.

“We see tremendous potential for rehabilitation that uses this
form of therapy,” said Dr. Reggie Edgerton, professor in the
departments of physiological science and neurobiology at UCLA.

“Some rehabilitation centers around the world are starting
programs that will allow therapists to train individuals affected
with spinal injuries, stroke and perhaps other neuromotor
disorders to improve their mobility and stepping capacity,”
Edgerton said. “This robotic device could help therapists in those
rehabilitation efforts.”

Current rehabilitation therapies are labor-intensive, and require
up to four therapists. Unlike therapists, who only sense and
observe a patient’s progress, the robotic device takes precise
measurements of the person’s force, speed, acceleration, and
resistance, counting each step the patient takes. These precise
measurements help therapists monitor the day-to-day progress of
their patients and provide valuable information on the
effectiveness of the therapy. These measurements will be used by a
control system that can assist the robotic stepper device as

JPL robotic engineers have worked alongside therapists to develop
the device, which has highly sensitive sensors that collect up to
24 different data readings of the patient’s activity. The device,
connected to a computer, displays the information on the screen
for the therapist to monitor.

According to Weiss, the same device could also someday be useful
to astronauts and help them walk safely after prolonged periods in
space, such as extended missions on the International Space

JPL and UCLA are actively pursuing efforts to commercialize the
robotic system. JPL technically supported UCLA in filing a patent
application in August.

“Many technologies developed at NASA for space exploration have
tremendous medical applications. We can provide practical
solutions based on our engineering experience,” said Dr. Antal
Bejczy, senior research scientist and lead engineer on the robotic
stepper device at JPL.

JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology
in Pasadena.