“It’s a nice feeling to be upright, to walk and to have people at eye level,” said a beaming Peter Kossmehl at the Potsdam Rehabilitation Centre in Germany. The 40-year-old from the German state of Brandenburg had just tried out a bionic exoskeleton — a wearable, battery-powered robot — that enables paraplegics to take a few steps again.
The rehab centre is one of the first facilities in Europe to test the robot, called Ekso and made by Ekso Bionics. The California-based company introduced Ekso in the fall of 2011. Now it is to be tested worldwide on paraplegics, stroke and multiple sclerosis patients and other people with lower-extremity paralysis or weakness.
“In Germany, only patients in Aachen have tested the robot Ekso so far — that was a few weeks ago,” said company spokesman Bastian Schink. After them, eight people in Potsdam strapped on and tried out the approximately 23-kilogram exoskeleton. With the help of sensors in its foot units, weight shifts are converted into steps.
“I’d like to give my patients the opportunity to stand erect again as soon as possible,” said Bettina Quentin, director of physiotherapy at the rehab centre south of Berlin. But Quentin, like many experts, warns against excessive expectations.
“People who function well with their wheelchair will always be faster in them than with the exoskeleton,” said Jan Schwab, head of spinal cord injury research at the Charite University Hospital’s Department of Experimental Neurology in Berlin. “The psychological benefits of a patient standing upright shouldn’t be underestimated, though.” The reactions of the Potsdam patients appeared to confirm this. “I’m not walking by myself,” he remarked. “It’s only passive walking.” Kossmehl, too, thinks more development work is needed. “But it’s just the right aid for the rehab centre,” he said.
In the view of Ruediger Rupp, director of the Department of Experimental Neurorehabilitation in the Paraplegiology Clinic at Heidelberg University Hospital, the robot is no substitute for a wheelchair, especially considering that it is not suitable for all patients.
There are about 60,000 paraplegics in Germany, “of whom fewer than 10 per cent are candidates (for the robot),” he said. “That’s a very select group.” Someone who can hardly move his or her torso, for example, would have great difficulties with the robot.