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Dr. Max Gomez: High-Tech Rehab Robots Making Strides With Human Paralysis

Expect Them To Be Used Soon On Patients With Parkinson's, Cerebral Palsy, M-S, More
Rehabilitation robots are helping paralyzed people get a move on. (Photo: CBS 2)

Rehabilitation robots are helping paralyzed people get a move on. (Photo: CBS 2)

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — These days robots do everything from manufacture cars and computers to disable bombs.

We’ve even seen them in the operating room.

Now, as CBS 2’s Dr. Max Gomez reported Thursday, robots are helping paralyzed people get moving again.

Most people think of robots as humanoid, “Star Wars”-like devices, but most robots don’t look at all like people.

They are machines that automatically perform tasks that humans normally might, but are too hard, boring or dangerous. In this case, robots are helping rehab paralysis patients.

Denise Melzer was a vibrant, active 39-year-old living in Brazil. Last year she suffered a sudden splitting headache in a taxi. She said she only remembers telling the driver to take her to a hospital.

When she woke up, “I couldn’t talk, no words at all. I didn’t know how to breathe by myself. I didn’t know how to eat. I couldn’t move my body, the half right part of my body,” she said.

That paralysis got only a little better after nearly a year of rehab in Brazil. So she turned to a cutting edge approach at North Shore-LIJ Health System that uses robots that are actually sophisticated bio-feedback devices.

“The machine gives her as much help as she needs. So if she has the full motion she doesn’t get any help. If she needs help getting to the dot, then the robot will give her that extra little push,” said North Shore’s Aileen Roginski.

The concept behind the robot rehab is that feedback. As Melzer tries to move the dot with her stroke-impaired hand or leg, it senses how much help she needs. And as she gets better, it makes the goal a little harder to reach. The sessions are demanding, as many as a thousand movements in an hour. It all adds up to re-wiring the brain through an intensity that’s hard to achieve with human physical therapists.

“Pieces of the brain that are undamaged are now able to put signals together and drive spinal cord and muscle to do what were formally familiar tasks controlled by pieces of the brain that have been injured and are no longer in the system,” said North Shore-LIJ Dr. Bruce Volpe.

After three sessions a week for five weeks, Melzer is now walking unassisted.

“I am being able to eat with the right hand, to hold the cup of yogurt with the right hand, to put on deodorant,” Melzer said.

That may not sound like much but it has a huge impact on a patient’s quality of life.

The rehab robots have been used mostly with stroke patients, but may also help people with Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and even traumatic brain injuries like the military’s wounded warriors, Gomez reported.

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