Robotics help marathon runner get back on his feet

A little more than a year ago, Brad Berman was training for the New York City Marathon.

He was 37 - happy, healthy and had a passion for running.

This would have been his fourth marathon - until he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, also known as a brain bleed, which occurs when a blood vessel ruptures in the brain.

"For me, running has been a huge goal and it still is. You know, I am a dad of two young boys and being less able to be physically active with them is hard. So I think that's a major goal of mine is to be able to do that," he said.

To help him reach these goals Brad has been working with different kinds of high-tech robotics supporting him with his physical therapy.

The stroke left him partly paralyzed on the left side of his body. He has recently been using an exoskeleton called the Ekso to help develop a more balanced, symmetrical walk.

"For me, my injury is on the left side of my body so my natural inclination is to stand on the right side. And so it's helped me to even that out a bit," he said.

The Ekso, which is FDA approved, is full-body robotic device.

His physical therapists, who train him on the Ekso, control how much he needs to laterally shift by setting a target. Once he has shifted enough to hit the target, it beeps to let him know he's in the right position.

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Brad Berman working on the Ekso exoskeleton, Oct. 2014.
CBS News

"Brad has been here every day working out on the robotic devices. He's been pushing himself, he's been helping us learn about the robotics as well," said Dr. Dylan Edwards, director of the Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation and Human Motor Control Laboratory at Burke Rehabilitation Center in White Plains, New York.

Edwards is still going through the data that is taken from the robot to evaluate the metrics tracking his recovery. But Berman has already seen a difference.

"I've found that my walking feels more stable, I've gotten faster," he said. "I just feel more sure-footed. I was in my house yesterday and dropped something on the floor and you know was thinking in my mind, 'Is it smart to bend over and pick this up?' It was a like a coin, and then I bent down and picked it up, I didn't fall over, nothing terrible happened. I think I just feel sturdier."

Right now Burke is using the Ekso only for neuromuscular control in stroke patients; however, it can also be used for patients with spinal cord or traumatic brain injuries.

When CBS News first met Berman last spring, he was having a more difficult time walking, particularly because of the lack of movement in his ankle. CBS News was with him the first time he used another robotic device called the Anklebot, designed to help him regain strength and motion in his ankle.

The Anklebot, which is mounted to a knee brace and custom shoe, was designed by M.I.T. engineers. It reduces calf tightness and aims to strengthen the muscles around the ankle.

The device helps the brain take more control of ankle movements through a computer that can attach to it. The computer has games or tasks on the screen that the user follows along, like trying to kick a soccer ball from one side of the field to another.

It it is essentially like a mechanical physical therapist that never gets tired of repetition.

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Dr. Dylan Edwards and Brad Berman work with the Anklebot, April 2014.
CBS News

A few weeks after that visit with Berman last April, he suffered another brain hemorrhage.

"Thankfully the setback was minor," said Brad's wife Jessica. "I never thought I would utter the sentence 'His hemorrhage was minor."

Even after the second hemorrhage she could see small improvements in his ankle control after using the Anklebot for just a short period of time.

"When he was [first] on the Anklebot and we saw it moving, that was all the robot moving it. That's the point of the robotics, if the brain is not going to recognize the limb, the limb is going to force the brain to recognize it by moving passively. Within a month of being on the Anklebot we started to see his toes start to wiggle and dorsiflexion, actually being able to lift his foot into a flexed position," said Jessica.

The two robotic devices -- the Ekso and the Anklebot -- operate slightly differently, Edwards explained.

"One is encouraging a normal gait pattern with both legs and the other is specifically targeting muscle activation on the joint that is problematic," said Edwards.

Edwards said the Ekso cost about $150,000 and the Anklebot runs about $120,000. But it wasn't Burke Rehabilitation center that purchased them - it was Jessica.

When CBS News was with the Bermans last spring at Burke, the Anklebot Brad was using was on loan from M.I.T.

Jessica launched a fundraising effort on the website Crowdrise called "Run4Brad" and has organized various athletic events to raise money. It paid off with enough donations to purchase the Anklebot and Ekso for Burke.

Jessica, who is also a marathon runner, recently ran this year's New York City Marathon for Brad and other stroke victims.

She is still working to reach a goal of $600,000 to fund a long-term program that would enable more patients to work with these devices and doctors to learn more about them.

"We still have a ways to go, but we have in place kind of the most critical element, which is the robots themselves," said Jessica. "I think that it brings Burke to a different level in terms of attracting people who like Brad, want to recover."

So far, around 30 other stroke patients have also been rehabbing with these devices at Burke.

"I think building this and helping other people gives me the answer that I need to be able to able to accept what happened to us and move forward," said Jessica.

For Brad, it's thinking about his "recovery race" that keeps him moving forward.

"I think, you know, now I see a finish line for the first time, which is still a ways off, but it's there."

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Brad and Jessica Berman, and their two sons, Noah, now six, and Andrew, now three.
CBS News