This Bionic Exoskeleton Helped A Man Walk Again

Mark Pollock is completely paralyzed. Here's the technology that's finally getting him back on his feet

Sep 04, 2015 at 3:49 PM ET

Mark Pollock can walk again—almost. Pollock, who is completely paralyzed from the waist down, can manage a couple thousand steps and, even then, only with the assistance of a bionic suit and electrical stimulation. But those few, wobbly steps are leaps forward in a field of scientific research that has long captured imaginations but produced little in the way of real results.

Researchers presented Pollock’s impressive outcome at IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society this week, and described their findings at length in a press release from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Before slipping into a bionic suit, Pollock underwent weeks of physical therapy and training, where he re-learned how to move his legs, prompted by external electrical spinal stimulation. Pollock says that the electrical stimulation was not necessarily uncomfortable, but it did produce a strange tingling sensation, and created tension in his typically slack legs.

“It’s very unusual,” Pollck says. “But unusual is good. Because feeling something is always better than zero feeling and zero movement.”

For the trial, scientists strapped Pollock into a robot suit produced by Ekso Bionics, which propelled him down a hospital’s hallway by creating a walking motion. Then the feedback system kicked in—and as Pollock began mustering his own strength (with the help of spinal stimulation) the bionic suit lessened its grip in realtime. Meanwhile, the robot continued collecting data on how much of the movement was coming from Pollock.

Victory came when the robot reported that Pollock (who, by all means, shouldn’t have been able to move his legs at all) was actually helping to propel the Ekso suit down the hospital hallway. With that, Pollock became the first person with complete paralysis to actively work with a robotic device to walk.

Pollock was an athlete before the injury that cost him the use of his legs, and he variably attributes his success in the study to personal drive, cutting-edge technology and the team of scientists behind the project, led by V. Reggie Edgerton of UCLA. But he stresses that having a clear goal in mind has always been key to helping him succeed where others have failed.

“I understand what I’m going for,” Pollock says. “I am pushing hard to try to fast-track a cure for paralysis. And I know if I don’t get there in my lifetime, at least I’ll have helped contribute to the bank of knowledge that’s out there.”