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Local Researchers Represent 'Team Cleveland' At World's First Cybathlon

Team Cleveland's Mark Muhn [photo: Stephanie Jarvis/ideastream]

A CYBORG is a fictional or hypothetical person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body. Sounds like science fiction, right? Well you may be surprised to know that Cleveland is a world leader... in cyborg technology. For proof, we head to Switzerland, where a team of athletes recently competed at the Cyborg Olympics.

Team Cleveland at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center

“My name is Mark Muhn. I was injured in a skiing accident in 2008. I broke my neck at C7 and the bone went into my spinal cord and I’ve been paralyzed below my arms ever since.”

Mark Muhn is part of a program at the Advanced Platform Technology Center that studies how implanted electrical stimulators can help paraplegics stand up, balance, and take steps.

“I have been trying to get up and walk ever since I’ve been in the chair. One way or another I was going to try new technology and give it a shot.”

Musa Audu speaking with Mark Muhn in the Motion Study Lab

“Mark has a high thoracic spinal cord injury, which means he’s essentially paralyzed from the chest down," says Dr. Ron Triolo.

Dr. Triolo leads a team of engineers, medical staff and researchers known as “Team Cleveland”, who work with participants like Mark in the basement at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center.

"When you’re paralyzed in that way, if the nerve that goes from your spinal cord to your muscle remains alive it can be excited by a small electrical current," he explains . "And when you excite the nerve, the nerve causes the muscle to contract.”

Mark’s implanted system connects to 24 paralyzed muscles, sending pulses of electricity into the nerves in his legs all controlled by an external box that activates with the push of a button. The system is entirely implanted. The only thing external is the transmitter.

“I got my implant five years ago and worked through the ranks from standing and walking," he explains. "I was introduced earlier in the year to the bicycle I’m sitting in. I’ve been training along with four other people to have a chance to represent Cleveland and the United States."

Mark and the rest of Team Cleveland traveled to Zurich, Switzerland in October for the world’s first Cybathlon. Aptly nicknamed the ‘Cyborg Olympics’, the international competition aimed to highlight and bring together the latest research in assisted technology for participants, known as pilots, who have physical disabilities.

Dr. Triolo admits his initial reaction was skeptical when he first heard of the competition.

“I had originally thought this idea of a competition was kind of silly. Let’s think of an international way to collaborate, but it’s convinced me that this is an extremely powerful mechanism to spur innovation.”

Sixty-six teams from all over the globe, including three from the United States, competed in one of six disciplines – with the technology front and center. Team Cleveland had an early advantage in the competition. They were the only team using an implanted approach to activate the paralyzed nervous system.

Leading up to the race, Mark was set to watch from the sidelines as a backup. But after the lead pilot, Michael McClellan was disqualified on a technicality, Mark found himself at the starting line.

“Even as runner up, I kept training right up to the day," Mark says as he thinks back on the event. "Even though I wasn’t going to be the guy, there was that 1% chance in case something happened. Obviously it did. There’s always the anxiety of what if something goes wrong…and I had that up until the race started. Once I was going around the track, the anxiety went away.”

Eleven cyclists competed in the bike race, but in the final round it was Mark who captured the gold.

“I absolutely remember that moment. It was obviously very emotional at that moment to be successful for the team and have all of your hard work pay off.”

He finished with a time of two minutes and 58 seconds for the 750-meter course… more than a minute ahead of his nearest competitor.

“I was on the sideline; I wasn’t allowed on the infield," recalls Dr. Triolo. "When Mark finished, I got a yellow warning card because I broke through the barricade. I was not going to wait and be told to congratulate Mark. It really was the pinnacle of a year and a half of the work of more than 20 people.”

Dr. Triolo embraces Mark after the final race

Back home in Northeast Ohio, the team reflects on that winning moment during a special ceremony honoring the efforts of Mark and the rest of Team Cleveland -- before of course, getting back to work on improving the very technology that helped them bring home the gold.

“The comment I get a lot is, ‘isn’t it amazing what these guys can do?’ And ‘they’ is these guys I’m working with," Mark says as he motions toward his team of researchers . "These guys, they put in the hours long before they ever met me, these guys have been working on the technology that made all of this possible. I get to be there and get all the glory, but it’s just a snapshot in time where the technology is at.”

Dr. Triolo says the Cybathlon has helped draw attention to this technology… and within the process challenged his team’s curiosity and creativity to pursue ways to make the system better.

“It helps humanize the technology. People can understand what a competition is. It’s being part of a movement. It’s knowing that you’re raising the awareness of what technology can do with people with disabilities.”


stephanie.jarvis@ideastream.org | 216-916-6340