The 2014 FIFA World Cup made history when it opened in Sao Paolo this week when a 29-year-old paraplegic man named Juliano Pinto kicked a soccer ball with the aid of a robotic exoskeleton. It was the first time a mind-controlled prosthetic was used in a sporting event, and represented the culmination of months worth of planning and years worth of technical development.
The exoskeleton was created with the help of over 150 researchers led by neuroscientist Dr. Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University, who’s collaborative effort was called the Walk Again Project. As Pinto successfully made the kick off with the exoskeleton, the Walk Again Project scientists stood by, watching and smiling proudly inside the Corinthians Arena. And the resulting buzz did not go unnoticed.
Immediately after the kick, Nicolelis tweeted about the groundbreaking event, saying simply: “We did it!” The moment was monumental considering that only a few of months ago, Nicolelis was excited just to have people talking about the idea of a mind-controlled exoskeleton being tested in such a grand fashion. As he said in an interview with Grandland after the event:
Despite all of the difficulties of the project, it has already succeeded. You go to Sao Paulo today, or you go to Rio, people are talking about this demo more than they are talking about football, which is unbelievably impossible in Brazil.
Dr. Gordon Cheng, a team member and the lead robotics engineer of the Technical University of Munich, explained how the exoskeleton works in an interview with BBC News:
The basic idea is that we are recording from the brain and then that signal is being translated into commands for the robot to start moving.
The result of many years of development, the mind-controlled exoskeleton represents a breakthrough in restoring ambulatory ability to those who have suffered a loss of motion due to injury. Using metal braces that were tested on monkeys, the exoskeleton relies on a series of wireless electrodes attached to the head that collect brainwaves, which then signal the suit to move. The braces are also stabilized by gyroscopes and powered by a battery carried by the kicker in a backpack.
Originally, a teenage paraplegic was expected to make the kick off. However, after a rigorous selection process that lasted many months, the 29 year-old Pinto was selected. And in performing the kickoff, he participated in an event designed to galvanize the imagination of millions of people around the world. It’s a new age of technology, friends, where disability is no longer a permanent thing,.
And in the meantime, enjoy this video of the event:
For years, biomedical researchers have been developing robotic prosthetics of greater and greater sophistication. From analog devices that can be quickly and cheaply manufactured by a 3-D printer, to mind-controlled prosthetics that move, to ones that both move and relay sensory information, the technology is growing by leaps and bounds. And just last week, the FDA officially announced it had approved the first prosthetic arm that’s capable of performing multiple simultaneous powered movements.
The new Deka arm – codenamed Luke, after Luke Skywalker’s artificial hand – was developed by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway. The project began in 2006 when DARPA funded multiple research initiatives in an attempt to create a better class of prosthetic device for veterans returning home from the Iraq War. Now, the FDA’s approval is a huge step for the Deka, as it means the devices are now clear for sale — provided the company can find a commercial partner willing to bring them to market.
Compared to other prosthetics, the Deka Arm System is a battery-powered device that combines multiple approaches. Some of the Deka’s functions are controlled by myoelectricity, which means the device senses movement in various muscle groups via attached electrodes, then converts those muscle movements into motor control. This allows the user a more natural and intuitive method of controlling the arm rather than relying on a cross-body pulley system.
The more advanced myoelectric systems can even transmit sensation back to the user, using the same system of electrodes to simulate pressure sensation for the user. This type of control flexibility is essential to creating a device that can address the wide range of needs from various amputees, and the Deka’s degree of fine-grained control is remarkable. Not only are user’s able to perform a wide range of movements and articulations with the hand, they are able to sense what they are doing thanks to the small pads on the fingertips and palm.
Naturally, the issue of price remains, which is consequently the greatest challenge facing the wide-scale adoption of these types of devices. A simple prosthestic arm is likely to cost $3000, while a sophisticated prosthesis can run as much as $50,000. In many cases, limbs have a relatively short lifespan, with wear and tear requiring a replacement device 3 to 4 years. Hence why 3-D printed variations, which do not boast much sophistication, are considered a popular option.
Visual presentation is also a major issue, as amputees often own multiple prostheses (including cosmetic ones) simply to avoid the embarrassment of wearing an obviously artificial limb. That’s one reason why the Deka Arm System’s design has evolved towards a much more normal-looking hand. Many amputees don’t want to wear a crude-looking mechanical device.
At present, the prosthetic market is still too broad, and the needs of amputees too specific to declare any single device as a one-size-fits-all success. But the Deka looks as though it could move the science of amputation forward and offer a significant number of veterans and amputees a device that more closely mimics natural human function than anything we’ve seen before. What’s more, combined with mind-controlled legs, bionic eyes and replacement organs, it is a major step forward in the ongoing goal of making disability a thing of the past.
And in the meantime, check out this DARPA video of the Deka Arm being tested:
This summer, the World Cup 2014 will be taking place in Sao Paulo, Brazil; an event that is sure to be a media circus. And to kick off this circus (no pun!), FIFA has decided to do something rather special. This will consist of a paralyzed teenager making the ceremonial first kick, courtesy of an exoskeleton provided by The Walk Again Project. In addition to opening the games, this even will be the first time that a mind-controlled prosthetic will ever be used in a sporting event.
Though the teenager in question remains to be chosen, the event is scheduled and the exoskeleton tested and ready. Using metal braces that were tested on monkeys, the exoskeleton relies on a series of wireless electrodes attached to the head that collect brainwaves, which then signal the suit to move. The braces are also stabilized by gyroscopes and powered by a battery carried by the kicker in a backpack.
The Walk Again Project, a nonprofit collaboration dedicated to producing full-body mind-controlled prosthetics, represents a collaboration between such academic institutions as Duke University, the Technical University of Munich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal in Brazil, the University of California at Davis, the University of Kentucky, the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment facility.
Miguel Nicolelis, the Brazilian neuroscientist at Duke University who is leading the Walk Again Project’s efforts to create the robotic suit, had this to say about the planned event:
We want to galvanize people’s imaginations. With enough political will and investment, we could make wheelchairs obsolete.
Nicolelis is a pioneer in the field of mind-controlled prosthetics. In the 1990s, he helped build the first mind-controlled arm, which rats learned to manipulate so they could get a drink of water, simply by thinking about doing so. In that project, an electronic chip was embedded in the part of each rodent’s brain that controls voluntary muscle movements. Rows of wires that stuck out from the chip picked up electrical impulses generated by brain cells and relayed those signals to a computer.
Researchers studied the signals as the rats pushed a lever to guide the arm that gave them water, and they saw groups of neurons firing at different rates as the rats moved the lever in different directions. An algorithm was developed to decipher the patterns, discern the animal’s intention at any given moment and send commands from the brain directly to the arm instead of to the lever. Eventually, the rats could move the arm without pushing the lever at all.
Using similar brain-machine interfaces, Nicolelis and his colleagues learned to translate the neural signals in primate brains. In 2000, they reported that an owl monkey connected to the Internet had controlled an arm located 600 miles away. Eight years later, the team described a rhesus monkey that was able to dictate the pace of a robot jogging on a treadmill half a world away in Japan.
Small groups of neurons, it seems, are surprisingly capable of communicating with digital devices. Individual cells learn to communicate with computer algorithms more effectively over time by changing their firing patterns, as revealed in a study of a mouse’s brain published last year in Nature. This capacity for extensive plasticity and the ability to learn comes in quite handy when designing a prosthetic.
German-made sensors will relay a feeling of pressure when each foot touches the ground. And months of training on a virtual-reality simulator will have prepared the teenager — selected from a pool of 10 candidates — to do all this using a device that translates thoughts into actions. In an interview with New Scientist, the lead robotic engineer Gordon Cheng of the Technical University of Munich gave some indication of how the suit works
The vibrations can replicate the sensation of touching the ground, rolling off the toe and kicking off again. There’s so much detail in this, it’s phenomenal.
Capitalizing on that adaptability, several human quadriplegics have received implanted brain chips in FDA-approved clinical trials. One of the first was Matt Nagle, who lost the use of his extremities after being stabbed in the spine. With the aid of electrodes placed in his brain at Brown University in 2004, he learned to raise, lower and drop a piece of hard candy using a primitive jointed arm not connected to his body.
In a widely publicized demonstration of that system, now owned by a company called BrainGate, a 58-year-old woman paralyzed by a stroke sipped a cup of coffee last year using a five-fingered robotic arm not attached to her body. Despite the slickness of the presentation, however, the woman actually had little control over the arm. Despite it being aesthetically pleasing, the design was a little rudimentary.
However, things have come a long way since then thanks to ongoing research, development and testing. In Nicolelis’s lab, monkeys showed the ability to feel virtual objects displayed on a computer screen when areas of the brain associated with the sense of touch were stimulated. The blueprints for next summer’s soccer exoskeleton include similar sensors that will provide an artificial skin for its human wearer, thus ensuring that they can both move the device and receive sensory feedback.
With the world watching, Nicolelis hopes not only that his “bionic teenager” will be able to feel the ball but also that disabled people everywhere will feel a sense of hope. And why wouldn’t they? In this single, incredibly high-profile event, millions of people around the world who struggle with disabilities will witness something truly inspirational. A paralyzed teenager will rise from a wheelchair, kicks the World Cup ball, and bring countless millions to their feet.
And you’re waiting until June of 2014 to see this momentous event for yourselves, be sure to check out this promotional video from The Walk Again Project, featuring interviews with the people who made it happen and showcasing the exoskeleton itself:
In recent years, rehabilitative systems have been developed that can allow stroke victims to move animated images of their paralyzed limbs, or to activate robotic devices that guide their limbs through the desired movements. Slowly, we are entering an age where machines can turn thoughts into ambulatory ability, allowing people who suffer from paralysis to lead more fuller lives.
But scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have taken it a step further with a device that acts as an intermediary between the brain and a non-responsive hand, receiving signals from the one and transmitting them to the other. Known as the Closed-Loop Neural Activity-Triggered Stroke Rehabilitation Device, it consists of two established technologies.
The first of those is a brain control interface (BCI), which interprets electrical signals from the brain and uses them to control an external device. In the past, this has been used to control robotic limbs, usually to assist people dealing with paralysis. But in this case, it activates a functional electrical stimulation (FES) system that’s attached to the paralyzed hand.
Basically, when a patient thinks of tapping their fingers, the BCI reads and recognizes those signals. The computer then passes these signals along to the FES, and it causes the hand to move as desired. The idea is that by repeatedly moving their hand in this fashion, patients will rebuild the neural pathways that previously allowed them to do so unaided.
To test the device, Dr. Vivek Prabhakaran and Dr. Justin Williams, brought together eight stroke patients – all of whom had lost at least partial use of one hand. Over the course of 9 to 15 sessions over a period of three to six weeks, each session lasting from two to three hours, they conducted clinical trials with their machine and recorded the results.
This was conducted using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) device. By scanning the patient’s brains before, during and after the trials, they were able to determine that the sessions resulted in a reorganization of the parts of the brain involved in motor function, while the DTI showed a strengthening of fibers in the white matter area of the brain.
Although there was some variation depending on the severity of each person’s stroke, the overall effect ws that patients experienced an improvement in motor function, and reported an improvement in their ability to perform daily activities. Looking long-term, Dr. Vivek Prabhakaran said that:
Our hope is that this device not only shortens rehabilitation time for stroke patients, but also that it brings a higher level of recovery than is achievable with the current standard of care.
Up until recently, the idea of using electrostimulus to send signals directly from the brain to the limbs, bypassing spinal injuries or other impediments to ambulatory ability, has been considered the province of science fiction. However, ongoing research and testing has been pushing the limits of what is possible with this technology.
Using our minds to control machinery is certainly an impressive feat, but using our minds to control machinery to restore or expand our abilities to control our own bodies. Not only is that impressive, its potentially revolutionary, and portends of an age where there is no such thing as permanent injuries or loss of ability anymore.