Health

How science is giving back the gift of movement

For most of us, completing a marathon seems like a Herculean task. For Claire Lomas, 32 (left), it was impossible. Paralyzed from the chest down after a horse-riding accident five years ago, she knew she would never be able to walk again.

Woman walking in bionic suit, robot suit

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

For most of us, completing a marathon seems like a Herculean task. For Claire Lomas, 32 (left), it was impossible. Paralyzed from the chest down after a horse-riding accident five years ago, she knew she would never be able to walk again. Yet this May, she walked 42 kilometres in a London, U.K., event in a bionic suit.

The lightweight brace mimics hip, knee and ankle joint movements by detecting subtle changes in gravity with motion sensors (just like our bodies do when we walk), giving Claire the ability to control her safety and stability with the aid of crutches. Her 16-day effort raised an impressive $125,000 for spinal research. Cheered on by her mother, husband and then 13-month old daughter, Claire crossed the finish line beaming.

A week later in Massachusetts, Cathy Hutchinson, a 58-year-old stroke victim paralyzed from the neck down, controlled a robotic arm with her mind. She became the first person to pour a cup of coffee using the power of thought alone, an action realized with the help of a sensor implanted into the area of her brain that controls movement. Cathy’s achievement is part of a trial with Brown University, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Cathy’s sip of coffee is one of the most complex brain-computer tasks ever completed.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I was able to drink without help. I had feelings of hope and a great sense of independence,” she said. These are two small steps that represent giant leaps forward in overcoming paralysis.

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