This year’s Christmas episode of Glee [the popular U.S. musical TV show] ended with what seemed like a holiday miracle. Artie, a character confined to a wheelchair, took a few halting steps with the help of a machine called the ReWalk. “It was invented by some guy in Israel,” he said, before using the ReWalk and crutches to move across the floor. But was ReWalk’s Christmas-saving screen time on Glee just Hollywood magic or based on real science?
The ReWalk exists (and was, in fact, invented by some guy in Israel) but was only recently approved in the U.S. for institutional use by the Food and Drug Administration. That means only hospitals and rehab centers will be able to purchase the device, starting early next year, so it’s not going to end up under anyone’s Christmas tree any time soon. But the doctors who are using it in a clinical setting are optimistic about its ability not to “cure” paralysis—the spinal-cord injury remains and no sensitivity is restored to the damaged limbs—nor to restore all mobility to those who have had a spinal-cord injury, but to help those patients regain independence, get better exercise, and avoid complications that can come with life in a wheelchair.
The device itself is a robotic exoskeleton—practically a full-body computer, worn around the legs, chest, shoulders, and back. It “consists of a lightweight wearable brace support suit, motorized joints, rechargeable batteries, an array of sensors and a computer-based control system,” according to MossRehab, a division of Albert Einstein Healthcare Network, in Philadelphia, which was the only U.S. institute to take part in the clinical trials. The ReWalk is powered by a backpack computer that sends signals to the leg supports when it detects subtle movements indicating changes in gravity. Wearers can control the motion of the legs via sensors in the upper body and the use of crutches. Because of the need for upper-body support and movement, the machine is intended only for paraplegics, who can control their arms and shoulders.