Will wheelchairs become relics of the past?

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

bionic arm
Robotics can replace dysfunctional limbs, if regenerative medicine isn’t able to restore them.

When people think of “cutting-edge technology”, the medical industry is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. However, medical tech is now finding ways to heal extreme conditions like paralysis, with advances in the fields of regenerative medicine, robotics, and brain science.

One of the main reasons a person remains paralyzed is because they suffer damage to their neurons – basic building blocks of the nervous system used to transmit commands from the brain. When researchers find a way to either rebuild or repair these damaged neurons, they can theoretically reverse the paralysis and allow a person to move again. In other words, regenerative medicine can naturally restore bodily functions by regrowing cells, reversing movement-impairing disabilities from within!

Meanwhile, robotics is offering other fascinating ways to aid paralyzed individuals. Robotic exoskeletons – or metallic frames that support a body – can keep a person “standing” in the upright position and promote walking by reading subtle cues.

In fact, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently developed an impressive exoskeleton that uses shifts in weight as a cue to move. Now, researchers hope they can improve this roundabout method and make the exoskeletons take commands directly from the brain.

In addition to exoskeletons, government scientists are working on a brain implant that can detect electrical impulses and deliver them to the body directly or to external electrical devices. This will allow people with disabilities to control muscles with the effectiveness of a well-functioning nervous system and even handle complex physical tasks.

Featured image courtesy of Leo Reynolds on Flickr. Image of bionic arm courtesy of Richard Greenhill on Wikipedia.