It was 2008 when Adam Fritz was riding home from work on his motorcycle.
A table fell out of a truck ahead of him, triggering the accident that would put him in a wheelchair. He was 21 at the time.
Fritz became paralyzed due to a spinal cord injury. He was in the hospital for about six weeks. For another month or so, he was in inpatient rehabilitation.
“You go to a rehabilitation center to learn how to live your life in a wheelchair,” explained Fritz, now 28, who lives in the Los Angeles area.
Fritz completed some outpatient rehabilitation but wound up stopping due to insurance reasons.
In 2011, he began going to Project Walk in Carlsbad, California. The focus there is on trying to regain and develop function with a focus on paralysis recovery.
“It’s almost the opposite of what traditional rehabilitation places do,” Fritz told Healthline.
While he was there, the employees told him about an opportunity to participate in research. Being quite motivated to regain the ability to walk, Fritz enrolled.
“I’ve always been willing to help out in the scientific community,” Fritz added.
Using Brain Waves to Regain Walking Ability
As part of the research, Fritz used an electroencephalogram (EEG)-based brain computer interface to control a functional electrical stimulation (FES) system.
The process has taken about a year and a half. Fritz said it wasn’t easy to harness the technology.
First, he had to place the device on his head and practice controlling an avatar in a virtual environment. It was challenging at first because he had to clear his mind and focus on making the avatar walk.
The machine had to learn about his brain waves and be able to adapt them in order to make the avatar walk. Once Fritz started striding, though, it was hard to stop taking those virtual steps.
“As I got better, it got better,” he said.
Next, it was on to leveraging the device to attempt physical walking. First, Fritz was suspended about 5 centimeters off the floor to see if he would be able to walk on the ground.
Then, it came time to take those first steps. He walked more than 10 feet.
“The first time, it was really kind of an incredible feeling,” Fritz said. “It was kind of like, ‘Whoa, I’m normal again.’”
Fritz is still using his wheelchair, but he believes that he will be able to walk on his own at some point in his life. It’s just a matter of time.
As a result of the research and experiment published in Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation, the study authors say the system is feasible. They say if the noninvasive system is tested in larger populations, a permanent, invasive version such as a brain implant may be justified.
“We hope that an implant could achieve an even greater level of prosthesis control because brain waves are recorded with higher quality. In addition, such an implant could deliver sensation back to the brain, enabling the user to feel their legs,” said Zoran Nenadic, D.Sc., the senior lead researcher of the study, an associate professor at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering, University of California, Irvine, in a statement.
Being able to walk not only lifted Fritz’s spirits. He noticed better muscle growth and development as well as improved bone density.
As for spinal cord injuries, Fritz hopes they one day will not mean people will automatically be confined to wheelchairs.
“I feel like, in my lifetime, there will be a cure for it,” Fritz said. “I will see when spinal cord injury will be an injury of the past.”