The whole world has been waiting excitedly for the World Cup 2014 in Brazil to start. The four-year long wait, which to some seemed like a couple of decades, came to an end last Thursday with the kick off and the first game between Brazil and Croatia. For most people World Cup 2014 is about the beautiful game of soccer; for a lot of scientists this World Cup had a more special meaning.
Last Thursday, we all saw an amazing thing happen at the kick off of the World Cup opening game. Although it may not have been very clear as it appeared on TV, since the cameras decided to not show much of what was actually happening, a paraplegic boy wearing a special mind-controlled exoskeleton made the first kick of the World Cup!
A group of scientists led by Miguel Nicolelis from Duke University have been working on this project for a long time, first with primates (i.e. monkeys) and recently with humans through the Walk Again Project. The exoskeleton is used create the communication between the individual’s brain and their limbs, a connection that is no longer active in patients who suffer from paraplegia, the paralysis of legs and lower body due to a spinal cord injury. With this special body armor, when the patient thinks about moving, the generated brain activity is sensed by the electrodes of the EEG cap placed on the patient’s head, which then gets translated to movement information that activates the exoskeleton. Surely, creating such a mind-controlled exoskeleton requires an extraordinary level of engineering and technology.
The implications of the use of such a mind-controlled exoskeleton is fascinating. It means that days when paraplegic patients can start to walk and move again is not that far away. Although I have also seen some interpret this demonstration as the first step to achieve the desire to control external objects with our minds, I would say let’s not get too excited about that just yet.
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