Brain-Machine Interface Could Allow Quadriplegics to Walk Again
Prosthetics have become more advanced over the years thanks in part to the engineering of exoskeletons that use microcomputers, advanced sensors and actuators to to provide movement. However, one key hurdle to achieving true limb replacement has been connecting the brain to the artificial limbs. Scientists at Duke University have seemingly cleared that obstacle as they work toward an ambitious goal: creating a full-body prosthetic suit that could allow paralyzed patients to regain the use of their bodies. The research also points to new possibilities in two-way brain-machine interfacing.
In what researchers called a first-ever demonstration of two-way interaction between a primate brain and av virtual body, the two monkeys were able to use brain activity alone to move an avatar hand and identify the texture of virtual objects. Dr. Miguel Nicolelis of Duke and an international team of engineers and neuroscientists claim to have bypassed the body’s network of nerve endings and supplied the sensations directly to the brain.
The two female rhesus monkeys were able to distinguish among three identical circles by identifying their textures — textures that were defined by coded electrical currents sent to the animals’ sensory cortex.
Previously, the research team proved that monkeys could move a cursor on a computer screen using just their brains, and in 2008 the monkeys initiated the movement of a robotic device in a lab in Japan using thought patterns. By combining this type of brain-based remote control and sensory feedback, a paralyzed person could theoretically walk using a specially designed exoskeleton.
Results were published in Nature earlier this month.
“Someday in the near future, quadriplegic patients will take advantage of this technology not only to move their arms and hands and to walk again, but also to sense the texture of objects placed in their hands, or experience the nuances of the terrain on which they stroll with the help of a wearable robotic exoskeleton.” — Miguel Nicolelis, MD, PhD, professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center and co-director of the Duke Center for Neuroengineering
The group at Duke is collaborating with the Walk Again Project.
Nicolelis and his team are on a tight deadline. They hope to perfect the technology to the point that, during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, they can equip a young quadriplegic with the suit and send him or her running out onto the field to open the games.
You can see a brief video explaining the recent experiment here:
CBS’ Sunday Morning recently covered exoskeleton work being conducted at Berkeley Bionics/Ekso Bionics. The video below is a good example of what is possible when engineers and medical professionals work together: