Warren Dixon and his team, both human and robot, give paraplegic patients a taste of mobility. And freedom.
As a boy in Jackson, South Carolina, Warren Dixon watched in wonder as researchers at the lab near his home tinkered with robots – some with spider-like legs that scuttled across the facility floor.
That experience sparked an interest that carried him through his years as an undergraduate at Clemson University and propelled him toward his doctorate in electrical engineering. During those years, he even ended up working at the Savannah River National Laboratory, the very facility where he was inspired to pursue robotics in the first place.
But it wasn’t until he visited the Shepherd Center, a hospital in Atlanta specializing in spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation, that he realized the potential impact robots could have on patients, particularly those with paralysis.
One in 50 Americans — the populations of Washington, Los Angeles and Philadelphia combined — lives with paralysis. Dixon said he knew a robot could not replace the intimate connection between doctor and patient, but he believed there was more research to be done about how machines might supplement human care.
His passion for finding ways to use robotics to strengthen and assist the human body guided him to the University of Florida in 2004, where he is now helping patients with paralysis gain mobility and independence.
Dixon said the emotional benefits of his work are twofold. “It’s exhilarating from a technical perspective,” he said, pointing to pride in his team’s efforts when they see their hard work pay off.
“But there is an enormous added bonus of helping someone and seeing the joy and hope on their face,” he said.
One of his first projects at UF involved stimulating the nerves of people who can’t control their muscles, allowing them to exercise. The process can reverse atrophy, reduce spasticity and improve cardiovascular health, while also increasing strength, blood flow, range of motion and bone density.
The research started by focusing on one muscle group, Dixon said. But he wanted to see if multiple muscle groups could work together to accomplish a larger goal. This resulted in the creation, alongside his former student, Matthew Bellman, of the functional electric stimulation bicycle. Using the bike, patients who might not have been able to move on their own in years had a taste of freedom and mobility.
“We stimulated someone the other day who is a paraplegic, and he was able to sit in our bicycle and watch his own muscles pedal,” said Dixon. “It’s so awesome to have that immediate impact.”
Dixon also works with about a dozen graduate students on other projects, ranging from constructing robotic systems that can understand the environment around them via images, to building unmanned air vehicles and studying how they interact with each other, to designing underwater robots.
Dixon said his students allow him to explore new areas in the field, and his job allows him an opportunity for lifelong learning.
“The joy of academics is that we get to see technical ideas and concepts come together in a new way that defines the state of the art,” said Dixon, “and we get to do this through educating and mentoring students.”