Research

SFU kinesiologist Andy Hoffer's lifelong research pays off with human clinical trials beginning this month.

SFU kinesiologist Andy Hoffer's lifelong research pays off with human clinical trials beginning this month.

Human trials put movement one step closer for disabled

February 22, 2007

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By Marianne Meadahl

It will be the result of 30 years of research—human trials this month for the first fully implanted device that could restore movement for people who can't walk or move their limbs due to neurological impairment.

The Neurostep, created by SFU kinesiologist Andy Hoffer and his team, is a pacemaker-like device that is implanted inside the thigh. It uses nerve cuffs to sense and stimulate nerve activity in the paralyzed leg—and enable movement in those suffering from neurological disabilities such as stroke, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury or cerebral palsy.

"In individuals who can no longer move a leg because of a lesion in the brain or spinal-cord control centers, the Neurostep monitors sensory information arising from the foot and decides when to activate the nerves that cause the paralyzed muscles to lift the foot," explains Hoffer, who has participated in planning the trials. "The device in effect replaces the malfunctioning neural control circuitry."

Hoffer and his team pioneered the design and uses of nerve cuff electrodes and developed specialized amplifiers over the past three decades. He patented assistive-device designs and applications and, in 1997, created an SFU spin-off company, Neurostream Technologies, which was bought by Victhom Human Bionics in 2004. Hoffer is on Victhom's clinical advisory board and remains active in Neurostep product development and clinical validation.

He is also taking his research in new directions. A grant from the Rick Hansen Foundation is enabling Hoffer and SFU colleague Faisal Beg to capture images of peripheral nerves using non-invasive, 3-D magnetic resonance imaging. The aim is to give surgeons accurate information about nerve dimensions and the exact location of nerve-branch points prior to a device-implanting procedure.

Hoffer also teamed up with SFU kinesiologist Max Donelan to secure an Idea-to-Innovation grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to develop a biomechanical energy-harvester prototype. The wearable device looks like a knee-brace, captures motion energy during everyday human activities, such as walking, and then converts it into electrical energy. Their objective is to recharge a variety of battery-operated portable devices, as well as implanted devices such as the Neurostep.

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