Powered exoskeletons are used to help people with lower limb paralysis get on their feet and allow post-stroke patients to recover faster. They’re pretty impressive devices, but people who are severely disabled, including those suffering from tetraplegia, can’t get much benefit from them.
Now, a team of researchers in France has succeeded in getting a man, who otherwise can’t move his arms or legs because of a spinal cord injury, to take autonomous steps using an exoskeleton. The patient, who has been paralyzed for two years, said that his experience was “like [being the] first man on the Moon,” according to the BBC. While the exoskeleton is certainly pretty neat, it is the two brain implants, and the decoding technology connected to them, that made the achievement possible.
The patient had two WIMAGINE 64-channel electrocorticography implants placed right on the surface of his brain. These are able to read signals originating from the brain’s movement centers, which are then decoded and translated into the movements of the exoskeleton.
Initially, the paralyzed man was trained to control characters in a video game via the brain-computer interface. Once practiced, he was eventually put into the exoskeleton and the same mental techniques he used to play the video game were used to control the motorized device. Getting the legs to move seemed much easier for the patient, but the arms and hands are more complicated and operate with more degrees of freedom.
Of course, all this is currently a research project, and the man will not be walking home in the exoskeleton any time soon. The incredible capability demonstrated is only a start, and the speed at which technologies often take off points to the possibility that allowing the severely paralyzed to walk again may be routine in the coming decades.
Here’s video of the paralyzed man taking steps inside the exoskeleton:
This video helps to explain the workings of the technology: