AutoAmbulator simulates sense of walking to get rehabilitating patients back on their feet

Birmingham 24 July 2001The Rehabilitation Institute of Saint Louis has been selected for initial feasibility studies relating to the AutoAmbulator, a potentially ground-breaking therapeutic robotic machine, which is developed by HealthSouth Corporation to rehabilitate individuals recovering from conditions affecting walking, such as strokes and spinal cord injuries. The AutoAmbulator was unveiled in July during the dedication of the Rehabilitation Institute, which is a partnership between HealthSouth and BJC HealthCare in affiliation with the Washington University School of Medicine.

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The AutoAmbulator is designed to replicate the pattern of normal walking. HealthSouth developers believe that it will be an important advance in the field of rehabilitative medicine. The planned study in Saint Louis will help researchers gauge clinical theories that the device can actually increase blood flow in patients' legs, decrease muscle spasms, improve respiration, and enhance neurological recovery.

"This promises to be a substantial advancement for the field of spinal cord injury and related neurological conditions that are associated with gait abnormalities", stated renowned researcher John McDonald, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of neurology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who will lead the scientific and outcomes-based study at the Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis. "It is very rewarding to see HealthSouth make such a major investment in developing new technologies and therapies like the AutoAmbulator."

HealthSouth CEO Richard M. Scrushy first envisioned the AutoAmbulator two years ago and then hired engineers and computer experts to design it and build a prototype. "It is wonderful to see this dream becoming a reality", explained Mr. Scrushy. "The very early stage anecdotal outcomes experienced by patients who have been trying the device look very promising, so we are extremely anxious to get this study under way at the Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis."

Gary West, the HealthSouth-funded inventor, said the AutoAmbulator will allow patients to "walk" while their upper body is supported by an overhead harness system and their legs secured to rotating robotic arms. The physiological responses of individuals participating in the trials of the AutoAmbulator will be monitored by a computer touch-screen built into the device's 5-foot-tall steel and aluminum frame, according to Mr. West. The computer monitors the patient's vital signs, weight, and walking speed. Special built-in sensors and an emergency button can stop the device in the event a medical problem arises.

Doug Heir, a five-time Paralympic athlete, demonstrated the AutoAmbulator at the dedication. He was paralysed from the chest down 23 years ago when he broke his neck attempting to rescue a swimmer. He has participated in the early testing of the AutoAmbulator, testing more than twenty times and walking up to 90 minutes at a time.

"This device has the potential to change the approach to neurological disorders in rehabilitative medicine", commented Mr. Heir, a Cherry Hill, New Jersey, attorney who is president of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. "I get a lot of e-mails from patients who have lost hope. I tell them to wait for new technologies and therapies being developed that will allow them to undergo simulated walking. The AutoAmbulator could be a life-enhancing blessing for these people."


Leslie Versweyveld

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