Could robotics spell the end of the wheelchair?

Open navigator

Please turn on JavaScript. Media requires JavaScript to play.

1. Trapped in isolation

Mobility is something that most of us take for granted, yet an estimated one in fifty people live their lives with some kind of paralysis.

This can be a side-effect from a medical condition. Or an accident that injures the brain or spine can dramatically change our ability to move. Regardless of the cause, the result is the same. The body cannot respond to the instructions it normally receives from the brain.

This can fundamentally change a person's sense of identity. For some, paralysis can become a powerful new part of their persona but for others it strips them of their independence and the activities that helped define them. So can science help people re-discover their mobility? And what shape will the innovations take?

2. Living with paralysis

Life with paralysis is more than just dealing with being unable to move.

Patients can also experience chronic pain, disturbed senses and impaired bodily functions. Below the point of paralysis, the body becomes more easily damaged and slower to heal. Pressure sores, from constantly being seated, are a persistent problem.

People with paralysis are also at greater risk from the health effects of being immobile, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease; these are the likely consequence of being unable to exercise properly.

However, the imposed isolation of paralysis can be just as damaging as the health effects. A less accessible world can cause huge frustration. Instead of being viewed simply as a person, paralysed people often feel defined by their wheelchair.

Developments like lightweight wheelchairs have help paralysed people to cope better with their immobility, but science is developing new solutions that could do far more to put patients back in control.

3. Putting the brain back in control

The ultimate goal would be a cure for paralysis but medical scientists don't think this is very close. So scientists are developing innovations that could help bypass the brain's problems sending messages to the muscles.

Brain-controlled interfaces

Specialised headgear or implants allows the user to manipulate technology .They work by detecting electrical impulses generated in the brain. This could allow people to use complex devices without needing to move at all.

Nerve stimulation technology

By stimulating nerves with electrical currents, scientists hope they can create new 'messaging' pathways which, in combination with rehabilitation, could restore some movement to patients.

Regenerative medicine

The human body is built of cells with a specific role; nerve cells, liver cells, muscle cells - and that role is fixed. However stem cells can transform into any tissue. So theoretically it's possible to replace or regenerate damaged nerve cells in order to restore their function. It could be possible to repair the communication between brain and muscles with this approach.

These are all highly specialised areas of research, none solely developed to treat paralysis. However their application to paralysis is exciting because pulling together work from different fields could produce life-changing breakthroughs.

4. The wearable robot

This content uses functionality that is not supported by your current browser. Consider upgrading your browser.

The robotic exoskeleton is an example of many different technologies being brought together to help paralysed people. This wearable robotic suit supports and helps the body move by automatically balancing itself and interpreting shifts in weight into mechanical movements . The next breakthrough might incorporate neural interfaces to bypass the physical controls. This could help people with upper body paralysis and assist even more people afflicted with paralysis.

5. What would you choose?

Many areas of research are still being developed, but if you became paralysed, which of these would you hope could help you?

Mind-controlled technology

Image courtesy of AFP/Getty Images

You selected

Mind-controlled technology

So what's the problem?

Current systems are often too large and unreliable. They require deep concentration from the user and there are still ethical questions over brain implants.

Robotic exoskeleton

You selected

Robotic exoskeleton

So what's the problem?

Current models are expensive. They can only provide power for a limited time, frequent technical support and aren't as reliable as a simple wheelchair.

Regenerative medicine

Image courtesy of UIG via Getty Images

You selected

Regenerative medicine

So what's the problem?

This research is very new. The biomedical tests required tend to be lengthy and expensive. There remains ethical opposition to this technology.