New freedom through movement – innovations for people with spinal cord injury

06.10.2021 Moving freely in the city and in nature, doing sports and being in control of one’s own body: not a matter of course for people with paraplegia. Yet rehabilitation research does not stand still. At the 47th Face to Face Meeting of Bern University of Applied Sciences, interested parties learned how the interaction of research, technology and movement can minimise health risks and give greater freedom to paraplegics.

At the event, which took place on 30 September in Nottwil, researchers from various disciplines and universities came together to report on the current state of rehabilitation research for patients with spinal cord injuries. Dr. Lukas Rohr, head of the School of Engineering and Computer Science from Bern University of Applied Sciences BFH, welcomed the 70 guests. He explained that the five speakers were not only connected by the same topic, but also by a joint research project, the TrykeStudy. Sebastian Tobler, a lecturer in vehicle construction at the BFH, started the discussion. Tobler, who is himself in a wheelchair after an accident, talked about his own motivation and his goal of finding a way to synchronise the movement of arms and legs in order to give wheelchair patients more movement and freedom. This resulted in the cooperation with the speakers in the above mentioned TrykeStudy and in the start-up GBY AG, which produces trikes that move the whole body.

Functional Electrical Stimulation FES

Prof. Dr. Kenneth Hunt, the next speaker, was one of the first contacts with whom Sebastian Tobler developed the trike. As head of the Institute for Rehabilitation and Performance Technology IRPT and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at BFH in Burgdorf, he works on technologies that improve the rehabilitation process of people after accidents or illnesses. He presented to the interested audience the technology that allows people with lower limb paralysis to propel a trike with muscle power from their legs, thanks to Functional Electrical Stimulation FES. Hunt and the IRPT have competed twice in the international Cybathlon competition using this technology, winning a bronze medal in 2016. Hunt explained how exercising by using the FES technology contributes to improved health.

Brain – spinal cord – muscles

Next, Prof. Dr. Grégoire Courtine and Jocelyne Bloch from EPFL’s Defitech Center for International Neurotherapies (NeuroRestore) shared the results of their research in neurotechnology and how it can contribute to the healing process after a spinal cord injury. Through their detailed examination of the spinal cord, they can describe exactly at which points in the spinal cord which movements are activated. They were able to prove that stimulation can form new connections that can lead to increased functionality. They are currently working on ways to control the stimulation not only via the spinal cord, but to control the movement impulses in the spinal cord directly from the brain.

Insights from behavioural science

Prof. Dr. Sara Rubinelli from the University of Lucerne spoke about the study on how the trike is accepted and used by the consumers. She explained how the usability survey enriched the project from the perspective of person-centredness, co-creation and technology engagement. And how the findings from the study contributed to the innovation of the trike.

Positive effect of active, physical activity

Jérôme Barral, senior lecturer at the University of Lausanne, was the last speaker. He spoke about the Quadract project, which investigated the influence of arm movement on the legs during training on a novel quadruped training device that was developed by Hunt's group in the BFH's IRPT and Division of Mechanical Engineering. The results showed that arm movements that passively moved the legs were able to activate the muscles in the legs. This was not the case when the arms were not actively, but passively moved. The findings illustrate the positive effect of active, whole-body physical movements, such as that practiced on the trike.

Teamwork leads to success

The event concluded with an exciting round of discussions with questions from the audience. Research does not yet promise a cure, but nevertheless important achievements can be made when researchers are working together as a team across university and disciplinary boundaries. Exciting work continues in the field of rehabilitation research for paraplegics.

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