Mark Pollock injured his spinal cord in 2010 after falling from a second-story window. The accident left him unable to move from the waist down.
But Pollock, an adventurer from Northern Ireland, has recently taken his first few strides since the accident.
He did it with the aid of a bionic suit and a jolt of electrical stimulation delivered to his spine through his skin, scientists reported earlier this month.
The feat makes Pollack the first person with complete paralysis — meaning he has no movement or feeling below the level of his injury — to walk inside a robotic “exoskeleton” while receiving noninvasive spinal stimulation, according to scientists from UCLA, who presented the findings at a recent conference.
Pollock, who has been blind since the age of 22, has used a wheelchair since his accident.
“Compared to sitting in the wheelchair, standing in the exoskeleton is incredible in itself,” Pollock told Business Insider. “But standing and walking with the [spinal] stimulation is like moving from a standard vehicle into the sports version. It felt like my legs were coming alive.”
Of course, the study only involved one person, and we’re still a long way from finding a cure for paralysis, experts say, because once damaged, the nervous system is very difficult to repair.
“This is really exciting,” Grace Peng, a program director at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, which funded the research, told Business Insider. But it “definitely needs a lot more data to convince people” that the therapy is effective, she said.
As this video shows, the stimulation enabled to Pollock voluntarily move his legs, as the exoskeleton provided the support needed to complete each step.
Breaking down barriers
This isn’t the first obstacle Pollock has faced. When he was five years old, he lost his vision in one eye, and when he was 22, he lost it in his other eye, leaving him totally blind. But that didn’t stop Pollock, an avid athlete, from going on to become the first blind person to race to the South Pole ten years later.
Then, in 2010, just weeks before his wedding, Pollock fell. The accident caused him to permanently lose all movement and feeling from the waist down.
He and his fiancée, Simone George, joined the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation to support research on paralysis. Through that organisation, he met V. Reggie Edgerton, an exercise physiologist at UCLA who was researching treatments for spinal cord injury.
Pollock had been using an exoskeleton — a powered device that supports its wearer — built by Richmond, California-based company Ekso Bionics, and Edgerton had been working on developing a non-surgical electrical stimulation therapy for spinal cord injury. Could they combine these two approaches to get even better results, Pollock and Edgerton wondered?
In search of a treatment
Edgerton has spent the last three decades working on treatments for paralysis, including various combinations of drugs and electrical stimulation.
In a study last year, Edgerton and his colleagues, Susan Harkema and Claudia Angeli of the University of Louisville, Kentucky, showed that four paralysed men who’d gotten electrical implants in their spinal cords regained the ability to partially move their legs.
In July, Edgerton and colleagues did a study using a type of noninvasive spinal stimulation through the skin, showing that five men who were completely paralysed were able to move their legs while lying down.
In the current study, he decided to give Polluck this noninvasive stimulation while Pollock was in the robotic exoskeleton. The way the suit works is by providing support while a person tries to move and completing the motions as needed.
Pollock trained for five days in the suit with the aid of electrical stimulation, and was able to take thousands of steps, the researchers said. While the stimulator was on, Polluck said he felt a sensation of “tingling” and “tension” in his legs, which haven’t felt anything for years, possibly because the stimulation activated remnants of nerves near his spinal injury. He also felt improvement in other bodily functions, like increased heart rate and the ability to sweat — both signs of healthy nerve activity.
The researchers think this type of combination therapy could be used to help people with either complete or partial paralysis regain some mobility, Edgerton told Business Insider. The question is, “how much improvement can be realised with a person like this?” he said. “That, we don’t know.”
Meanwhile, Edgerton has started a company called NeuroRecovery Technologies to develop these stimulators commercially.
As for Pollock, the experience of having the stimulation in the exoskeleton provided a “glimmer of hope” despite his limited prospects for recovery. “But of course, at the end of the study, you have to roll out in a wheelchair with no stimulator,” he said.
Still, the study adds to a growing body of research on spinal cord injury that provides some measure of optimism in a field where progress has been frustratingly slow. Pollock has a trust dedicated to the search for a cure for paralysis.
During his trip to the South Pole, Pollock followed in the footsteps of British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. But in the past few years, he has travelled the world and met people who are explorers in another sense — scientists. “I have the same feeling as when I prepared and went to the South Pole,” he said, only “in a different domain.”
The study was published in the Proceedings of 37th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society.
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