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Brain-Machine Interfaces Could Be The End Of Wheelchairs

Marcel Oosterwijk, flickr

In June 2014, Julian Pinto kicked the first ball of the World Cup. He isn’t a soccer star or a celebrity, but his kick attracted quite a bit of attention—because it signified a major breakthrough in brain-interface technology. Confused? Well, Pinto is paralyzed from the waist down, and he kicked the ball with his mind, using a robotic exoskeleton. If you think it sounds like something from a science fiction novel, you’re not alone: even Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, who headed the research, once had his doubts.

“I knew in theory that it could work,” he told Krys Boyd earlier this week, “but when we talked five years ago, (it) was just a concept. I thought at that time that I would be lucky if in my lifetime I would have the opportunity to make it happen.  This amazing opportunity came up in 2008.”

The chance came through the Walk Again Project, an international collaboration between experts in neuroscience, robotics and virtual reality.

“One of the goals of the Walk Again Project was to show the 1.2 billion people watching that moment that this could be done,” Dr. Nicolelis said. “If we really put our intellectual, scientific and technological resources together to fund ideas like that, aided therapies like that could come in the next decade to help the tens of millions of people who suffer from paralysis and other neurological disorders.”

One of the biggest challenges for Dr. Nicolelis was creating a robotic suit that would actually feel like the wearer was walking, rather than being suspended or carried.

“When we first put a paraplegic patient in a device where they can’t feel the ground, they feel like they’re floating in air,” he said. “It is very frightening. We wanted to create a full embodiment of that exoskeleton. We took six months to find the correct parameters in the correct place in the body to deliver the feedback from the pressure sensors in the knees and the surface of the foot of the exo.”

The answer? The forearm skin, near the radial bone: arranged a certain way, this can deliver a phantom limb sensation that tricks the patient’s brain into thinking they feel their feet, not the machine. The scientists perfected the sensation so well that they can mimic the feedback from three surfaces: grass, sand, and hot asphalt.

Dr. Nicolelis’ lab is pushing the boundaries of possibility, and he hasn’t taken his discoveries for granted.

“I became a scientist because of the moon landings,” he said. “That was the most stunning thing I’ve seen in my life, but this came pretty close. We were there for six months in a bunker of a lab, sitting and looking at a screen, seeing something nobody thought we would see. When you put the patient in the exoskeleton and they look at you and say, ‘I’m walking,’ boy… that was a moon landing.” 

Dr. Nicolelis will speak tonight at the UTD Center for Brain Health as part of its lecture series "The Brain: An Owner's Guide." Listen to his full conversation with Krys Boyd here

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