Office of Strategic Content | September 12, 2017
March 8, 2014 was a Saturday near the end of a long, cold winter in Ohio. The high temperature that day was a brisk 46 degrees. The low, 30. The details of the weather are now mostly relegated to almanacs, except in the memory of Greer Rouda. The continued hold of winter meant there was still time for cold weather activities. And so it was that Rouda took his snow mobile out for a spin, only to hit a hole in an ice patch. The machine jarred and stopped abruptly, sending Rouda more than 80 feet through the air. He suffered a fracture and faced the prospect of life as one of the 450,000 Americans living with a spinal cord injury.
Rouda is a diagnosed incomplete quadriplegic. “Incomplete” not a description of the injury’s effects. It means at least some portion of the cord that serves as the sensory pathway between the brain and the rest of the body has remained intact. People with incomplete spinal cord injuries can learn to walk again because the nervous system has a great deal of plasticity: The remaining neural connections can be retrained for walking (clinically known as locomotion), even if that was not their original use. Body weight-supported treadmill training is a fairly standard component of the rehabilitation for these injuries, wherein the hips are supported to varying degrees via a harness, facilitating the act of walking by lessening the load on the legs.
However, there are patients — Greer Rouda, for one — who initially respond to the treadmill training, only to reach a point at which no further progress is made. An explanation for why this plateau is reached has proven elusive, and to date, so has a rehab strategy to spur on further recovery. But a team of researchers is looking for answers to this most human dilemma by using an unlikely collaborator: a robot.