Brain interface, virtual reality and exoskeletons combine to help paraplegics walk again.
Think about these words for just a second: brain interface. If you had come across such a term in one of the original episodes of Star Trek 40 years or so ago, you may well have responded by saying: “This is getting a bit far-fetched.”
Exoskeletons have been offering enticing possibilities for some time. The holdup, though, was with the brain. It is all every well, fitting an exoskeleton to a human body, but the tricky bit was enabling the control of the skeleton by thought.
Of course, we move our own body parts by thought – most of them, at least. So if we think that we want our fingers to move, they do. But if the fingers are artificial, how then do you do it?
Virtual Reality provides the means
The answer was supplied by virtual reality.
So the patient can practice in virtual space, and learn how to move objects just by thinking it. The breakthrough occurred in Brazil, where eight paraplegics practised, or if you like trained their mind, from behind an Oculus Rift headset.
The theory was clear. For some time, researchers have been able to demonstrate how a computer can read the electronic signals from a brain. So theoretically, the computer could then control moving parts. And indeed, the same scientific team behind this latest breakthrough demonstrated an early application in 2014, when they were able to train a 25-yer old paraplegic to control an exoskeleton to kick a football.
But to achieve more complete control, the brain first had to be trained, and for some time this was the stumbling block.
But enter the world of virtual reality and everything becomes so much simpler. All of sudden, the exercises required to train the brain were carried out virtually – with training over two hours a week for a year.
The dream discovery
Professor Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University, São Paulo, who headed up the team of researchers behind this pioneering technology said: “We stumbled into this clinical recovery, which is something that is almost like a dream, because it took the approach to a whole new level. “
He explained further: “A large percentage of patients who are diagnosed as having complete paraplegia may still have some spinal nerves left intact. These nerves may go quiet for many years because there is no signal from the cortex to the muscles. Over time, training with the brain-machine interface could have rekindled these nerves.”
The technology involves a ‘haptic’ sleeve, which provides tactile feedback which varies depending on what the user is doing. So walking on grass creates one form of vibration.
Professor Nicolelis said: “The tactile feedback is synchronised and the patient’s brain creates a feeling that they are walking by themselves, not with the assistance of devices . . . It induces an illusion that they are feeling and moving their legs. Our theory is that by doing this, we induced plasticity.” He suggested that this plasticity not just achieved for the brain, but the spinal cord too.
As for the impact, he said: “They have seen on their own terms a very significant improvement in their lives, in terms of mobility, of being able to feel their legs, to feel their skin; improvements in sexual performance for the men for instance.
Professor Nicolelis suggested that the technology may have further applications beyond spinal injuries, such as helping stroke victims, by building on the plasticity of the nervous system.
It is an example of virtual reality that no one really envisaged when the concept was revealed as a way to enjoy computer games.
And it’s a good example of convergence, how different technologies can converge and create something spectacular. It is also what technology cynics, who insist that technologic progress is slowing, are overlooking. They are full of linear thinking, and fail to factor the massive jumps that can occur via convergence.