The Cyborg Olympics: In Bike Race, Electrodes Jolt Paralyzed Legs Into Action

Mark Muhn is used to watching from his wheelchair as his kids win trophies for their achievements on the sports field. He’s been in that wheelchair since 2008, when a skiing accident crushed his spine and left him paralyzed from the chest down.

Last Saturday, though, Mark was the one on the podium with a gold medal draped around his neck. “I’ve watched my kids win, but this time they got to watch me,” he says.

Muhn won gold at the Cybathlon, the world’s first cyborg Olympics, which took place this weekend in a sold-out stadium in Zurich, Switzerland. He competed in a bike race that required the human body and cutting-edge technology to work in tandem. During the race, implanted electrodes sent pulses of electricity into the nerves in his legs to control his dormant leg muscles. With the right pattern of electrical pulses, his paralyzed legs pushed on the bike pedals. [Scroll down for video.]

“You could really see the technology and the pilot working together,” says neural engineer Ronald Triolo, who developed Muhn’s gear as a researcher at the Advanced Platform Technology Center at the VA Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. “The total was greater than the sum of its parts.”

Muhn had been training for the Cybathlon’s functional electrical stimulation (FES) bike race for months. And he’s had the electrodes in his legs for much longer—ever since he joined Triolo’s research study in 2012. The study has mainly focused on using electrical stimulation to get paraplegics to stand up and take steps. Biking got added to the agenda last year when Triolo heard about the Cybathlon and decided to take part.

On Saturday, Muhn beat out 10 other FES cyclists from around the world who competed in heats. Muhn took the gold with a time of 2:58 for the 750-meter course, more than a minute ahead of his nearest competitor. While Team Cleveland is full of praise for all the participants in the race,…[Read more]