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January 7, 2014 > Exoskeleton helps stroke patients

Exoskeleton helps stroke patients

By Anika Dokes

Strokes, the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, affect more than 800,000 people each year, killing more than 150,000 and permanently disabling many others. According to the World Health Organization, 15 million people suffer strokes worldwide each year. Of these, five million die and another five million are permanently disabled.

A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot or ruptures. When this happens, the affected part of the brain cannot get the blood and oxygen it needs so brain cells die. Stroke victims may suddenly lose the ability to speak, suffer memory problems, or become paralyzed. Although, strokes can occur at any age, nearly one-fourth of strokes occur in people under the age of 65.

The Rehabilitation Research Center at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (SCVMC) conducts research to better understand and improve outcomes after Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Not only do they cater to stroke patients, but also provide services to family members, caregivers, and other professionals in rehabilitation. The center is funded through grants from the National Institute on Disability, Rehabilitation Research, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, and U.S. Department of Education.

Since January 2010, Dr. Stephanie Kolakowsky-Hayner has been the Director of the Rehabilitation Center. Her primary research interests have been ethnicity, cultural issues, family, caregiver needs, and substance use after injury. On July 15, 2013, Kolakowsky-Hayner and other researchers decided to test a prototype of a new version of an exoskeleton to determine how it could benefit stroke victims. The Ekso 1.2 robotic exoskeleton device is similar to a previous version, Ekso Pro, originally called ÒeLegsÓ used in the rehabilitation of individuals with spinal cord injuries.

The new and improved updated Ekso 1.2 robotic exoskeleton is a wearable robot, the first time an intelligent, bionic, battery-powered and ready-to-wear device is being used by patients who have had a stroke. The device helps patients relearn proper gait, weight shifts and balance when walking. Battery-powered motors drive the legs, controlled by a computer strapped on the patientÕs back. The device is triggered by various controls that enable the user to, sit, stand or walk.

Four patients were chosen to participate in an intensive three-day study. Participants and therapists helped Ekso engineers refine and test the equipment in preparation for FDA approval. This technology will enhance functional ambulation of people who have stroke, spinal cord injuries or other neurological conditions. The feedback obtained from participants and therapists provided insights for future improvements of the device.

SCVMC is conducting a variety of studies. In January 2014, Dr. Kolakowskey-Hayner will be working with Hines VA Medical Center in Illinois to evaluate Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS). This clinical trial will determine the effect of rTMS on patients who have suffered severe TBI and are in a vegetative state.

For more information, visit: or contact Dr. Kolakowskey-Hayner at

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