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Cybathlon 2016

Aline BRILLU - 2/11/2016

Cybathlon: the gamble pays off for the Freewheels team

Freewhels Cybathlon 2016 - © Inria / photo C. Morel

On 8 October, the first edition of the Cybathlon - a sports competition for disabled athletes equipped with high-tech equipment - took place in Kloten, Switzerland.  Jérôme Parent, a paraplegic, was on the starting line of the race for cycles assisted by electrical stimulation. It was the culmination of a year and a half of work with the researchers from Inria's Camin team and the clinicians at the DIVIO re-education centre in Dijon. Let’s take a look back at this extraordinary adventure.

On Saturday 8 October, on the track of the Kloten skating rink in Switzerland, Jérôme Parent, who has been paraplegic for over 20 years, achieved the impossible: crossing the finishing line of a cycle race. It was the culmination of a year and half of work by the Freewheels team. "At the start, I felt a certain amount of apprehension , Jérôme Parent recalls. But I felt in really good physical and mental condition. And I had confidence in the team ."
"There was a true emulation between all of these research teams from the world over, who were all there to make things happen !", enthuses Benoît Sijobert, doctoral engineer with Inria's Camin team. Together with Christine Azevedo, director of research, they adapted a three-wheeled recumbent bike and developed an electrical stimulation programme designed especially for Jérôme Parent. Six electrical channels enable him to contract his quadriceps and hamstring muscles and therefore pedal.  It took more than a year of work and training to adjust the equipment. At the same time a doctor, Charles Fattal, and a physiotherapist, Anne Daubigney, took care of the pilot's muscular preparation. The team that supported Jérôme towards this Cybathlon competition is truly multidisciplinary.

 « A success »

After qualifying for the final, Jérôme Parent ended the race in sixth place. "We hadn't gone there for a medal. We achieved our goal, so for us it was a success ", Christine Azevedo remarks. In the first edition of the competition, the teams did not have benchmarks on the performances of the pilots. As they had no access to the track prior to the race, and did not know the precise nature of the floor surface, the team preferred to set itself a realistic goal: to cover the 750 metres in eight minutes.  The stimulator was adjusted accordingly, and the pilot was trained to pedal at exactly this speed."He did brilliantly, right from the first qualification round. We were all very pleased. However, on site, we did not have the resources to improve this time. Moreover, this is something to work on in the future: having more adaptable equipment that will enable us to modify the speed more easily ."

Sporting challenge aside, the Cybathlon has also helped to promote research in electrostimulation and its applications. "There has been a lot of interest around these very first bionic Olympic  games. Via a concrete and beneficial application – stimulation-assisted cycling - the Cybathlon has also brought functional electrical stimulation to the attention of the general public and popularised its use ",Benoît Sijobert reveals. For the team, the event was also an opportunity for fruitful discussions with other researchers. "We are going to suggest to the different teams to publish a "special issue" in a journal in order to collate articles containing information on the strategies of the different teams.  The idea is to take stock of what did or did not work based on the characteristics of the different pilots. The aim is to go even further in electrical stimulation and to expand its use. ", Christine Azevedo adds.

Next challenge: working on endurance

The Cybathlon adventure now over, the entire team will shortly be getting together to embark on new projects. "Jérôme put in an enormous amount of effort for over a year. So there was no question of everything just stopping overnight", Christine Azevedo announces. We have already scheduled a full-scale test on an athletics track for the end of November. This time, it will be matter of testing Jérôme's resistance over a long distance, at a slower pace. Aim: to cover two kilometres in around 30 minutes. "For the Cybathlon, he had to pedal fast over a very short time. This is not, however, the primary aim of our work. Instead, we work with a view to proposing something that can be adapted to as many people as possible and that makes their enjoyment last as long as possible. That is why we are going to work more on endurance", Christine explains.
A new clinical protocol will be filed. It will enable the monitoring of Jérôme Parent at least every two months. "I was prepared for this adventure to end after the Cybathlon, Jérôme admits. But we have been through such a human adventure that I am delighted that it is going to continue." Especially since this year of work has had real physical effects on the forty-year-old.  "My body is more harmonious, my bone density has increased slightly and my breathing capacity has improved."
Inria's Camin team also plans to test the technique on other patients. In the long term, the researchers are striving to develop neuroprostheses and electrical stimulators to facilitate the everyday life of people suffering from sensorimotor impairments such as hemiplegia or Parkinson's disease.
"The Cybathlon adventure has enabled us to give meaning to our research work, it has enriched us" Christine Azevedo explains