After living without vision for 10 years, in 2010, former athlete Mark Pollock took a tumble out of second-story window that robbed him of control over his legs, too. Now, he is using a robotic exoskeleton to take back some of that control.
Pollock is the embodiment of perseverance. He was the first blind person to participate in a race in the South Pole. After years of dedicated effort to keep his leg muscles from wasting away, he is now the first paralyzed person to regain enough control over his legs to actively work with a robotic exoskeleton.
The device, called an Ekso, is designed to enhance mobility by assisting movement rather than doing all of the work for the user. The goal is to rehabilitate damaged body parts rather than replace them, like a prosthetic.
It is by engaging his badly damaged nervous system, both with the Ekso and noninvasive electrical stimulation of his spine, that Pollock achieved such remarkable progress. When he fell out of that window, he broke his spine so badly that sharp fragments of broken bones nicked his spinal cord in multiple places, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. However, after just a few weeks of training as part of a study at the University of California, Los Angeles, data from the Ekso suit showed that Pollock was actively lifting his legs and assisting the robot's stepping motion.
"In the last few weeks of the trial, my heart rate hit 138 beats per minute," Pollock said in a statement. "This is an aerobic training zone, a rate I haven't even come close to since being paralyzed while walking in the robot alone, without these interventions. That was a very exciting, emotional moment for me, having spent my whole adult life before breaking my back as an athlete."
Pollock still has a long way to go before he will be able to walk completely on his own again — if that ever becomes possible. We can be sure, however, that Pollock will continue to do everything in his power to fight back against his physical limitations and that scientists will continue to pursue this rewarding avenue of research.
"For people who are severely injured but not completely paralyzed, there's every reason to believe that they will have the opportunity to use these types of interventions to further improve their level of function. They're likely to improve even more," said senior study author V. Reggie Edgerton of UCLA in a statement.
Scientifically, the sky is the limit right now. According to Edgerton, it's insufficient resources that are crippling the field.