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Jacksonville’s Brooks Rehab First In Nation To Roll Out ‘Cyborg-Type’ Robot For Treating Patients

Ryan Benk
Derrick Amaral's had 14 treatments with the Japanese HAL robot. It uses his brain waves to allow him to control its movement.

The future of spinal injury therapy is now and in Jacksonville. Brooks Rehabilitation hospital announced Friday that it’s the first in the country to offer a new kind of robotic treatment.

Derrik Amaral broke his neck in four places and was paralyzed in a car wreck.

“Doctors concluded that I was never going to walk again or even breathe on my own,” he said.

Five years later, he can take small steps with a walker. He’s also used wearable technology that helps take steps for him. But he said it wasn’t until his first treatment with what’s called a Hybrid Assistive Limb, or HAL, that he felt like he was walking.

“Unlike other devices, I’m actually driving the HAL. That means my brain is sending the signals and the robot is giving me that extra little push that I need and it’s making me stronger at the same time,” he said.

HAL’s like an exoskeleton that helps patients walk on a treadmill to build up strength. The machine attaches nodes to the patient’s skin that reacts to electric impulses sent by their brain. A computer collects the information and a camera keeps track of their movements.

Patient Derrick Aramal takes steps at @BrooksRehab in Jacksonville aided by a Japanese "cyborg-type" robot called HAL. — Ryan Benk (@RyanMichaelBenk) March 2, 2018

Right now, patients have to make the machine move with more intention than those who haven’t had a spinal injury. Amaral said he really has to “think hard.” But, the goal is to have patients eventually walk out of the hospital almost entirely unencumbered.

Brooks is bringing eight of the Japanese machines to Jacksonville, the first place in the nation to get them.

They’ll be rolled into the hospital’s existing Cybernic Treatment Center. HAL is the brainchild of Dr. Yoshiyuki Sankai, CEO of Cyberdyn and a professor at the University of Tsukuba. He began working on the technology in the early 1990s.

The technology is unlike other exoskeleton-style physical therapy aids. Through nodes attached to skin, it reads brain signals, allowing patients to control the machine themselves. — Ryan Benk (@RyanMichaelBenk) March 2, 2018

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry told reporters the technology represents a real game changer for people in need, but also proves Jacksonville is a destination for the state’s medical tourism.

“It speaks to the corporate citizen that Brooks is, but also what the medical industry — the expertise — it’s known in Jacksonville, but it’s also kind of a secret. I don’t think people realize how deep the knowledge and expertise is right here in our city and today demonstrates how real that is,” he said.

It’s not clear at this time how much the 60-week treatment intervals will cost, but a company rep says insurance is unlikely to cover the treatments.

You can read more about how HAL works at Cyberdyne’s website.

Ryan Benk can be reached at, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @RyanMichaelBenk.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.