Soccer fans may have seen something exciting during the opening ceremonies of the World Cup in June- a paralyzed teenager, outfitted in a brain controlled exoskeleton and looking robotic, performed the first kick of the tournament. The exoskeleton, designed by a team at Duke University led by neuroscientist Miguel Nicolens as part of an international Walk Again Project (http://virtualreality.duke.edu/project/walk-again-project/) was controlled by a computer that was worn in a back pack. The computer is part of a “brain-machine interface” (BMI) that receives information from electrodes placed on the brain to control the joints of the exoskeleton. The electrodes, embedded in a cap, are precisely located to pick up information from areas of the cortex that initiate voluntary movement.
The thought of a particular movement, in this case the plan to kick the soccer ball, caused electrical activity in areas of the brain that would control the trunk and leg movement necessary for the kick. Because of the teenager’s spinal cord injury the messages from the brain could not be relayed to the correct levels of the spinal cord to communicate with motor neurons that would innervate muscles needed for the movement. Instead, these electrical signals were relayed to the computer, which was programmed to move the exoskeleton in the proper sequence to allow the kick to occur.
In addition to allowing the movement, the device is designed to relay sensory information about joint position and movement back to the brain to establish a feedback loop to ensure smooth and effective movement. Although heavy, bulky, and still in the clinical research stage, mind controlled devices like this one seen by millions of World Cup fans may one day help people with spinal cord injuries regain some function of their arms and legs, thus improving their independence.
Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, an Olympic gold medal swimmer who injured her spinal cord in an all-terrain vehicle accident in June is also using an exoskeleton as part of her rehabilitation. Her device, an Indego (www.indego.com) differs than the mind controlled device as it is activated via hand controls and a remote control and senses weight shifting to accelerate of decelerate movements. The Indego exoskeleton is still in clinical trials and is showing promising results in improving mobility of people with paraplegia.
The TRF looks forward to learning more about the use of exoskeletons as part of a comprehensive rehabilitation program for people with spinal cord injuries and we are excited about the collaboration between neuroscience, computer science, biomedical
Two recent items in the news have captivated the world of spinal cord injury research and recovery; first, the ATV accident that left Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken-Rouen with a severed spine at the beginning of June, and the ceremonious kickoff of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, which featured the first steps of a wheelchair-bound teen with a spinal cord injury, just one week later.
Amy’s story reminds us that, unfortunately, spinal cord injuries can happen at any time, to anyone. The six-time gold medalist has undergone surgery for a severed T11 vertebra and is in the very early stages of her recovery from the ATV accident that occurred in early June. Doctors say it is “difficult to imagine” that she will ever be able to walk again. You can read an update here.
However, the advancements in treatment and recovery of spinal cord injured persons have not gone unnoticed. The scientific vision that allowed a SCI person to wear an exoskeleton controlled by the brain in order to move limbs is – quite literally – a giant step forward for SCI research. This was made possible by the Walk Again Project, a group of researchers who focuses on using technology to help people with paralysis walk again.