Gordon "Skip" Beadle has a prosthetic right leg, the tenth such device he’s depended on since the retired U.S. Marine was wounded during the Vietnam War 50 years ago.
"It’s a symbiotic leg. It has a microprocessor in the knee and also the ankle," he said. "This leg in particular gives me a huge amount of balance. Before this leg, I pretty much had to use a cane cause I’d lose my balance. (Now) I can walk without a cane; I can walk uphill, downhill."
I met Beadle in a University of South Florida laboratory as he put his leg through its paces on the Computer-Assisted Rehabilitation Environment system, also known as "CAREN."
Thanks to a $450,000 National Science Foundation grant, USF is the first non-Department of Defense institution to buy the million-dollar, state-of-the-art virtual reality simulator.
"We can use this for rehabilitation, we can use it for assessment for different prosthetic devices, and we can get all the information that you would get in a typical lab regarding somebody’s gait," said Dr. Stephanie Carey, an Assistant Research Professor with the USF Department of Mechanical Engineering.
"So if we have a full marker set, we can get information about joint angles, joint forces. And as researchers, that gives us information about how we can improve stuff like designs of a prosthesis or how we can improve how some rehabilitation or training mechanisms are used," she added.
Carey is one of more than 20 researchers from a variety of departments across the university - engineering, nursing, arts and sciences, physical therapy and rehabilitation sciences, behavioral and community Sciences, and the arts - working with CAREN.
They're using the system to find out how it can assist those with reduced motor skills, such as people who’ve suffered strokes or other neurological disorders or those who are learning how to use prosthetic limbs.
"Use of the CAREN system offers a number of different ways, in some ways very fun and interesting, unique and novel ways, to get a patient to really challenge the functionality of a device and then maybe go out and actually start using it in their daily life," said Dr. Jason Highsmith, an Associate Professor with USF's School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences.
That could be as simple as helping a veteran with a new prosthesis meet the challenges of maneuvering around the house.
"There’s a slope on the driveway that they’ve got to attack for the first time and figure out how to get the garbage down to the road and get the mail," Highsmith explained. "We now have some ways to actually start thinking about, okay, get this person from the clinic setting and actually start making some transitional therapies to help them integrate back into their home life."
That's where the CAREN system, with its split-belt treadmill and six-degree platform, enters the equation.
"So, if we wanted to feel like you’re going up a hill, then the platform is going to move accordingly, a little bit at a time as it would for a hill," Carey said.
Add in the motion-sensor cameras and the virtual reality software that allows researchers to create variable scenarios, and you have a very useful tool.
"The ability to change the environment is very helpful because we can now take one instrument, the CAREN system, and we can package in pre-test, post-test measurements, as well as a therapy all in one system," Highsmith said. "There’s not a lot of systems that allow that flexibility."
Beadle said his sessions on the CAREN system have helped him out.
"Balance is really key and if you cannot balance yourself on your limb, on your prosthetic limb, you’re gonna fall, you’re gonna be uncomfortable, you’re going to be in pain," he said. "This machine, I would like to spend a lot of time on it because it would improve my balance a lot."
The researchers welcome that kind of feedback.
"We learn from the technology, we learn from the clinicians, and we learn from the patients, so we’re all working together for a common goal," Carey said.
Highsmith added, "It definitely sets us apart, as a university, to say that yes we are interested in finding new ways to collaborate and pull different departments together to get a 360-degree-view from multiple disciplines to look around real human problems and think about ways to improve quality of life for people."