In 2018, the Brooks Cybernic Treatment Center in Jacksonville, Florida, became the first US center to use a unique rehabilitative technology developed in Japan. The technology is called the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL).
HAL provides aid to those with spinal cord injuries and muscular dystrophy. It helps people regain their movements and strengthen their nerves and muscles.
Hybrid assistive limb (HAL) is powered by users mind waves
Kristen Sorensen, 55, is a user of HAL. She became paralyzed from the neck down and was no longer able to move her limbs.
“It came out of nowhere,” said Sorensen. “I’d been fine and exercising every day, but it just started with tingling in my fingertips then progressed.” She was diagnosed in October 2018 with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare disorder that affects the body’s nervous system. Then she discovered HAL and decided to give it a try.
Sorensen said it initially felt like HAL was doing most of the work by helping induce her muscles to make small leg movements that mimic natural walking patterns, but then she found herself increasingly in the driving seat.
“After the first couple of times, your brain connects to HAL, and I could see I was moving my legs myself,” she says. “It was just incredible—my heart was just bursting.”
HAL could potentially help the aging population in the future
Known as exoskeletons, HAL is a type of lightweight suit, with joints powered by small electric motors, that serve as mechanical muscle. It was developed by Japanese roboticist Yoshiyuki Sankai.
“The average age of workers (in Japan) is very high, so these technologies can help them and gradually increase elderly people’s physical functions, so they can remain independent,” says Sankai.
Sankai’s aim is to prepare medical devices that will maintain and increase human health for longer. In the future, as human bodies wear down with age, an exoskeleton powered by active minds could help people stay on their feet.