Several bio-tech companies are developing exoskeletons that give people superhuman abilities. These robotic suits are also doing something simpler: They're helping people who are paralyzed, including many veterans, stand up and walk. As Erin Toner of WUWM reports, the technology helps improve patients' mental and physical health, but it's far from changing their lives entirely.
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This back to biology class and you may remember learning about exoskeletons. They're the hard outer structures that provide protection for creatures like beetles and lobsters. Technology has now given us exoskeletons for humans. Several companies have developed devices to give people super-human abilities, like carrying very heavy loads. And as Erin Toner of member station WUWM in Milwaukee reports, these robotic suits are also helping people who are paralyzed.
ERIN TONER, BYLINE: Army veteran Dan Rose has spent the last three years in a wheelchair, after an explosion in Afghanistan left him paralyzed from the chest down. Doctors told the then-26-year-old, he'd never walk again. Well, things turned out a little differently.
NICK ROUSH: All right, Dan. You ready to stand up?
DAN ROSE: Yep.
ROUSH: Yep. Here we go: 1, 2, 3. All righty.
TONER: Rose, with long brown hair tucked under a backwards baseball cap, is standing in his apartment in Madison with the help of his new motorized exoskeleton suit. It looks like something Hollywood actors wear in sci-fi movies. His cousin, Nick Roush, places Rose's feet in bindings, tightens Velcro straps around his legs and chest and locks the suit's hip joints. When everything's secure, Rose is ready to move.
ROUSH: And stepping.
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TONER: It even sounds like a robot. Rose takes slow, stilted steps by carefully positioning each leg, shifting his weight and then triggering the exo-suit to move by pushing buttons on a pair of crutches.
ROSE: It's just a whole new perspective, like I can see over stuff now. I'm taller than the refrigerator. Like, I don't have to kill myself trying to get something out of the freezer.
TONER: Three years ago in Afghanistan, someone remotely detonated 1,000 pounds of explosives under his truck. Rose says when he came to, he couldn't move his legs. There were many dark days after surgery confirmed his spinal cord was completely severed. He says his outlook began to change after he agreed to try downhill skiing, which led to other adaptive sports. And now he's back to walking.
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TONER: His $130,000 exoskeleton was donated by a nonprofit called Soldier Socks, and very few people have the device to use at home. Jennifer Macievich is a physical therapist with Ekso Bionics, the company that makes the suit, and she's trained Rose's cousin and a friend to be spotters.
JENNIFER MACIEVICH: Dan's part of our study where we're trying to decide whether or not using the device with a layperson who doesn't have medical training is safe and effective.
DR. KEN LEE: People shouldn't think of it as an Iron Man suit, OK. It's not one of these things we can put on a guy and he becomes a superman.
TONER: Dr. Ken Lee heads the Spinal Cord Injury Center at the Milwaukee VA Hospital. He says while these exo-suits are really cool, we should forget comparisons to "RoboCop." But the technology does offer health benefits.
LEE: By moving, his joint stays limber. Spasticity, which all our patients go into spasms, and that can also get decreased as well. And also by having up and moving around, their muscles stayed toned up appropriately, rather than tight or atrophying.
TONER: After using his suit, Dan Rose is exhausted, but his legs and feet feel warm. It also makes him happy to be at eye level with people again. And for all his trauma, Rose feels lucky.
ROSE: I know guys who are tetraplegic, where they don't have full hand function, you know. So, just the fact that I can reach out, you know, tie my own shoes, you know, grab whatever - it's huge.
TONER: Rose hopes the study leads to even more advanced technology. Already researchers are working on the next phase of medical robots: suits that move by reading a person's brain signals. For NPR News, I'm Erin Toner in Milwaukee.
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