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Paralysis victims relearn to walk with robotic device

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SOUTH JORDAN — Less than a year ago, 16-year-old Chance Sackett was paralyzed from a shooting accident but is now walking with the help of a futuristic machine called the Lokomat.

"It feels strange," Sackett said. "It feels like you're actually (walking), but when you look down it's something else."

The Lokomat is a robotic device and the first of its kind, made possible by a $350,000 grant from the Sorensen Legacy Foundation. It's now housed at Utah's Neuroworx Center in South Jordan.

Though the bullet that passed through Sackett's neck has done its damage, he's bypassing the paralysis and learning to use his leg muscles again. The concept, called neuroplasticity, assumes neuro-patterns or neuro-networks below the injury have a built-in memory; concentration and repetitive movements can renew that motion, despite the paralysis.

Sackett even uses the machine's Avatar and video game to enhance hip and leg movements. His determination at this stage of his rehab is unwavering.

"I don't want to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair," he said. "I want to go on with my life."

Neuroworx Executive Director Dr. Dale Hull, a walking quadriplegic, said researchers are just scratching the surface, learning more about the nervous system and what it can do in the wake of a spinal or brain injury.

It makes me feel like I'm up and walking. It drives me to concentrate and work harder. It's just a great feel.

–Mike Feureer, a quadriplegic

"There are theories that we are actually able to regrow axons and those axons can reconnect," Hull said. "Until we come up with a way to image, to prove it, right now the proof is what we see with these patients."

Mark Feureer, also a quadriplegic, travels weekly from Arizona to Salt Lake City to take advantage of Lokomat and other tools at the Utah center, staffed by therapists who've accelerated his transition from wheelchair to standing, to moving.

"It makes me feel like I'm up and walking," Feureer said. "It drives me to concentrate and work harder. It's just a great feel."

With the robot moving his legs, Feureer said there's more to his movements than he realized. Even swinging his arms, a movement natural to walking, had to be relearned.

Like Feureer, Christopher Deputy is a quadriplegic and had to relearn simple movements. He was paralyzed from the neck down after a mountain bike accident three years ago, but is now walking on his own.

Though Deputy said some parts and limbs don't work quite right, many are functioning to the point where he gestures his hands without thinking about it.

"You think about moving your leg forward and putting your heel down and then pushing off and moving forward. It is just a retraining process," he said.

What he's doing now is a far cry from the old theories of paralysis.

I want to walk on stage and be able to walk over to get my diploma.

–Chance Sackett

"That was a fallacy that use to exist," Deputy said. "You know you did your therapy for a year and then they put you in a wheelchair and you went about your life."

Not all paralysis victims can learn to walk again, as some injuries are too serious to mend. But for Sackett, Feureer and Deputy, life now involves traveling down different paths.

"I want to walk on stage and be able to walk over to get my diploma," Sackett said.

Neuroworx has also partnered with the University of Utah Department of Mechanical Engineering for a unique research project. Engineers are designing a virtual reality treadmill system that will duplicate real-life obstacles for patients.

"This new visual and audio experience will move rehab as close to reality as possible, enhancing even more the relearning process for paralysis victims," Hull said.


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Ed Yeates


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