Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago


Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago Unveiled World's First Neural-Controlled Bionic Leg at Fourth Annual
Skyrise Chicago Event

Seattle area resident was joined by nearly 3,000 others in North America’s tallest stair climb

CHICAGO, IL. (November 5, 2012) - Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) research participant Zac Vawter  made history on Sunday, November 4, 2012, by climbing 103 floors of Chicago’s Willis Tower using the first “thought-controlled bionic leg”, a neural-controlled prosthetic leg driven by his own thoughts.   Vawter, 31, of the Seattle area, was joined by nearly 3,000 others in the world’s tallest indoor stair climb event, SkyRise Chicago, which benefits further RIC research.

RIC’s Center for Bionic Medicine pioneered the Targeted Muscle Reinnervation (TMR) technique which allows amputees to have more natural control of prosthetic devices.  Vawter lost his leg in a motorcycle accident three years ago.  He received the TMR procedure when his leg was amputated and became part of RIC’s unique research trial about a year ago.  He travels to Chicago to work every few months to test this one-of-a-kind prosthetic leg that has a powered knee and ankle. What makes it “bionic” is that it interacts with him. When Vawter pushes on the device to stand-up, the device reads his intent and pushes back on him propelling him up.

“One of the biggest difference for me is being able to take stairs step-over-step like everyone else,” said Vawter. “With my standard prosthesis, I have to take every step with my good foot first and sort of lift or drag the prosthetic leg up. With the bionic leg, it’s simple, I take stairs like I used to, and can even take two at a time.”

SkyRise Chicago is a climb and fundraising event that raises funds for RIC’s world-class clinical care and innovative research. Nearly 3,000 participants climbed 103 flights of stairs of Willis Tower, or hand- cycled the equivalent with specially calibrated hand-cycles, or “virtually” participated through fundraising alone.

“There are approximately 600,000 individuals with lower limb amputation in the United States, and we are hopeful that this neural-controlled technology will allow for more ability and more long-term independence,“ said Levi Hargrove, Ph.D., director of the neural engineering for Prosthetics & Orthotics Lab within RIC’s Center for Bionic Medicine. “Our integrated team of clinicians, prosthetists and engineers are very excited to have climbed with Zac Sunday.”

This work is a result of a grant from The Department of Defense Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) aimed to improve the control of advanced robotic leg prostheses by adding neural information to the control system. This work is a collaborative effort lead by RIC’s Center for Bionic Medicine, also including the University of New Brunswick, Vanderbilt University, MIT, and URI.   The robotic leg prototype Vawter will use during Skyrise was designed by Michael Goldfarb at Vanderbilt University and has undergone extensive testing at both Vanderbilt University and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Background on Zac Vawter
In 2009, then 27-year-old Zac Vawter was enjoying an afternoon ride on his motorcycle in rural Washington State when he took a turn too fast and crashed. Vawter was conscious as he dialed his cell phone to call for help, knowing that what occurred was very bad. Three days later, his left leg was amputated above the knee. Months later, Vawter was connected to RIC’s Center for Bionic Medicine, the world leader in neural control for prosthetic devices, to participate in a ground-breaking clinical research trial focused on developing prosthetic legs controlled by the patient’s own neural information, a process RIC introduced in upper-arm amputees in 2005.

Now 31, Vawter is married with two children and lives in the South Puget Sound area of Seattle. Every few months he travels to Chicago to work with the team at the Center for Bionic Medicine to refine the control mechanisms with this leg system. As a software engineer, Vawter thrives in the highly comprehensive environment of biomedical and software engineers, prosthetics, therapists and physicians, all working hand in hand to advance the field of prosthetics and neural control.

Having been a collegiate runner, Vawter was drawn to the 103-floor challenge of SkyRise Chicago. As a research subject of RIC, he felt compelled to give back to the institution that is advancing the entire industry of lower-limb prosthetics.

About RIC’s Center for Bionic Medicine
RIC’s Center for Bionic Medicine first launched the “Bionic Arm” in 2005 which allowed a man to control a robotic arm prosthesis by his own neural signals. The procedure, pioneered at RIC, uses Targeted Muscle Reinnervation (TMR) to replant nerves that once went to an amputees amputated limb to new healthy muscle and tissue, allowing the neural information to be used to control a computerized prosthesis more naturally—the user simply thinks about what they want the arm to do. RIC’s "Bionic Arm" technology has been very successful in more than 50 patients worldwide, including several U.S. service members who lost limbs in combat.  For more information on CBM, go to:

About The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago:
The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) is the nation’s #1 ranked provider of comprehensive physical medicine and rehabilitation care to patients from around the world.

RIC holds an unparalleled market distinction with a record seven multi-year, multi-million dollar federal research designations awarded and funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Education’s National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research in the areas of spinal cord injury, brain injury, stroke, neurological rehabilitation, outcomes research, bionic medicine/rehabilitation engineering research, and pediatric orthopedics. RIC operates its 182-bed, flagship hospital in downtown Chicago, as well as a network of more than 40 sites of care distributed throughout the Midwestern region, through which it delivers inpatient, day rehabilitation and outpatient services.

Founded in 1954, RIC has been designated the “#1 Rehabilitation Hospital in America” by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1991. RIC sets the standard of care in the post-acute market through its innovative applied research and discovery programs, particularly in the areas of neuroscience, bionic medicine, musculoskeletal medicine and technology transfer. For more information, go to

U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) Takes Big Step Forward at Willis Tower Climb During First Public Appearance Since January 2012




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