A quadriplegic man has walked again thanks to a brain-controlled robotic exoskeleton suit. The suit being tested only in the lab also allowed the patient to control his arms and hands.
The patient was a man from Lyon named Thibault, who fell 12 meters (40 feet) from a balcony four years ago. He was left paralyzed from the shoulders down.
The first of its kind
"Ours' is the first semi-invasive wireless brain-computer system designed for long term use to activate all four limbs," said Professor Alim-Louis Benabid, President of the Clinatec Executive Board, a CEA laboratory, and Professor Emeritus from the University of Grenoble, France.
"Previous brain-computer studies have used more invasive recording devices implanted beneath the outermost membrane of the brain, where they eventually stop working. They have also been connected to wires, limited to creating movement in just one limb, or have focused on restoring movement to patients' own muscles."
To allow Thibault to achieve these movements, the researchers implanted two recording devices on the surface of his brain to collect and transmit brain signals. The signals were then decoded with an algorithm which sent commands to the exoskeleton.
Thibault was required to train for months, using his brain signals to control a video game avatar before he could use the exoskeleton. Once fitted with the suit, he was able to walk slowly and then stop, as he pleased.
The first man on the Moon
Using the suit and the avatar, he also further progressed to using both hands to touch targets on the cubes 16 months after the surgery. For Thibaut and for all paralyzed people, this is a big deal. Thibault told BBC News he felt like the “first man on the Moon.”
Although the novel suit is a giant step forward for quadriplegics, it can not yet be tested outside the laboratory because it requires a ceiling harness. Still, the hope that it holds for those paralyzed can not be denied.
"Our findings could move us a step closer to helping tetraplegic patients to drive computers using brain signals alone, perhaps starting with driving wheelchairs using brain activity instead of joysticks and progressing to developing an exoskeleton for increased mobility," said Professor Stephan Chabardes, neurosurgeon from the CHU of Grenoble-Alpes, France.