Great news from the Lancet Neurology journal. A mind-controlled exoskeleton helped a man with paralysis to walk again. This remarkable result, the provides hope to tetraplegics seeking to regain movement, is due to the Université Grenoble Alpes in France. Surely, the road ahead will be long and hard. The exoskeleton weighs 65 kilos and is currently supported by a sling hanging from the ceiling. This prevents the patient from falling but, at the same time, limits his movements. Therefore, the device is still far from being suitable for everyday use.
However, in more than two years of experimentation, the neural interface has produced incredible results. The patient walked for 145 meters wearing the exoskeleton, reached and touched objects in three-dimensional space with 71% success. Experts are confident that they will be able to restore autonomy to paralyzed people.
How does the BCI work?
As we can imagine, the work was not easy. To make this possible, Thibault, the young patient, was subjected to a series of resonances to identify the areas of the brain that are activated when a man imagines he is walking and moving his arms.
Later, the scientists placed two brain implants over the patient’s motor cortex. These consist of plates equipped with 64 electrodes, implanted above the dura mater, which collect the brain activity and transmit it wirelessly to a computer. It is then up to a machine learning algorithm the task of translating the signals into commands for the movement of the robotic exoskeleton.
What is the dura mater?
The dura mater si a thick membrane made of dense irregular connective tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.
Following the surgical implant, Thibault learned to command an avatar in the shape of an exoskeleton. Once a certain familiarity was reached, the patient was able to wear the device to command the exoskeleton and take the first steps. The results obtained were even better than with the avatar.
A big step for science and rehabilitation
Cervical spinal cord injuries are the most severe of its kind and leave about 20% of patients paralyzed in all four limbs. Several studies used implants to stimulate the muscles of the patients, but this research go a step beyond, because is the first to use brain signals to control a robotic exoskeleton.
Researchers stated that it could potentially lead to brain-controlled wheelchairs for paralyzed patients. Lim Louis Benabid, professor emeritus at Grenoble and lead author of the study, said that “it is not a question of turning man into a machine but of responding to a medical problem. We are talking about repaired man, not increased man.”
In Thibault’s opinion, the trial offered a message of hope to people like him.
I felt like the first man on the moon. I haven’t walked in two years. I had forgotten that I was taller than most people in the room. It was really impressive.
Whe can absolutely say that this is a small step for a man and a big step for science and rehabilitation.