Noah Gaines, a physical therapy doctor and neurologic clinical specialist, demonstrates the Ekso Bionics that is available at Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital.  (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Larry Bartley set his record of 409 steps in July while he was wearing robotic technology to help him recover from a spinal cord injury.

Now, the 62-year-old has made a big step in his progress since his 30-feet fall from a tree. 

After sessions in the Ekso GT, surgeries and physical therapy sessions, Bartley has exchanged the robotic exoskeleton for a front-wheel walker. 

“It’s been an incredible journey. It’s my duty to continue to get strong and get better,” Bartley said. “Everything that went wrong went right.”

He can also stand up and take more than 30 strides without his walker in the comfort of his home. 

Bartley has restored strength in his legs and regained the nerves in his body less than six months after his accident. 

When he entered Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital, he had joint movement below his injury but was unable to stand or walk.

More than 5 million Americans, representing 1.9 percent of the population, or roughly 1 in 50 people live with some form of paralysis, according to a 2009 survey.

Ekso may seem like the latest breakthrough tool for patients with spinal a cord injury. However, technology is surging forward in the world of healthcare.

Neuroscientist Reggie Edgerton had this question: if an injured spinal cord can’t get a signal to the brain, is walking still possible?

His answer was “yes.”

“I got started by looking at an interesting question and science told me this was possible,” Edgerton said. “The sensory system is extremely important. Most of our movements are automatic and unconscious.”

Edgerton spoke at the 2016 Empowerment Through Medical Rehabilitation event on Sept. 26, an event hosted by Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation.

He is the director of the Neuromuscular Research Laboratory and professor of Integrative Biology and Physiology, Neurobiology and Neurosurgery at UCLA.

Noah Gaines, a physical therapy doctor and neurologic clinical specialist, speaks about the Ekso Bionics that is available at Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital, which Larry Bartley, right, used.

Noah Gaines, a physical therapy doctor and neurologic clinical specialist, speaks about the Ekso Bionics that is available at Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital, which Larry Bartley, right, used.  (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Edgerton discovered the spinal cord, much like the brain, can learn. The strategy, called transcutaneous stimulation, delivers electrical currents to the spinal cord by electrodes placed on the skin of the lower back. 

Through research, Edgerton discovered individuals with spinal cord injuries and who had been completely paralyzed were able to move their legs voluntarily after receiving currents of electricity to jump-start the spinal cord.

By 2009, he had enough animal data to test his technique on patients.

“For multiple years he was ridiculed, and his work was hard to fund,” said Tariq Kadri, a member of the Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation board of directors.

“He’s an innovative person and one of those rare individuals that managed to find an amazing discovery.”

In the study, five men with complete motor paralysis were able to voluntarily take step-like movements after direct epidural electrical stimulation of a subject’s lower spinal cord.

Repeated periods of stimulation of the spinal cord, mimicking signals to the brain transmits to initiate movement and training seems to have amplified the ability to consciously control movement, he said. A severed spinal cord was able to detect sensory information and send out signals to control movement after the study.

After the study, the patients have been able to control their physiological functions including bladder, sexual function and temperature regulation. 

“Anyone who has been injured knows that paralysis is more than being able to walk or use your hands,” Edgerton said. “Every system is impacted and those are things you have to deal with on a daily basis.”

The men’s legs were lifted in braces that suspended from the ceiling during the study.

“The fact that the spinal cord can learn is why physical therapy works,” Edgerton said. “What we are trying to do is change the mood in the spinal chord. We don’t stimulate and make a move, we stimulate and improve the ability to the brain input.” 

The devices to implement Edgerton’s research are going through safety procedures and in the research stage, he said.

Edgerton was introduced to the idea after noticing how a mammal’s spinal cord can generate output in the absence of input from the brain.

Building on this research opens new treatment possibilities for people living with paralysis, he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at bholland@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.