Paraplegic Kicks Off World Cup in Exoskeleton 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.

WorldCup_610x343Immediately 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. 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:


The Future of Medicine: Curing Blindness

curing_blindnessAccording to a recent study in Nature Biotechnology, a significant leap has been made towards the curing of blindness. Using stem cells, researchers at the Moorfields Eye Hospital and University College London claim that the part of the eye which actually detects light can be repaired. An animal study revealed that it could be done, and human trials are now a realistic prospect.

Experts described it as a “significant breakthrough” and “huge leap” forward, and for good reason. In the past, stem cell research has shown that the photoreceptors in the eye that degrade over time can be kept healthy and alive longer. But this latest trial shows that the light-sensing cells themselves can be replaced, raising the prospect of reversing blindness.

The Moorfields research team used a new technique for building retinas in the laboratory, collecting thousands of stem cells, which were primed to transform into photoreceptors, and injecting them into the eyes of blind mice. The study showed that these cells could hook up with the existing architecture of the eye and begin to function.

rods_and_cones_of_the_retina-splHowever, with ongoing trials, the results remain limited. Of the 200,000 or so stem cells injected into the eyes of the blind mice, only about 1,000 cells actually hooked up with the rest of the eye. Still, the margin for success and the fact that they were able to rehabilitate receptors thought to be dead was quite the accomplishment.

As lead researcher Prof. Robin Ali told the BBC News website:

This is a real proof of concept that photoreceptors can be transplanted from an embryonic stem cells source and it give us a route map to now do this in humans. That’s why we’re so excited, five years is a now a realistic aim for starting a clinical trial.

The eye remains one of the most advanced fields of stem cell research, with clinical trials aiming to correct macular degeneration, astigmatism, and other degenerative and inherited traits. And compared to other fields, like neurological disorders and impairments, it is a relatively simple one. Hence, much less cells would also be needed to make a difference, as opposed to other organs, like a failing liver or kidney.

photoreceptorsWhereas reversing something like dementia requires stem cells to hook up and repair far more cells across the brain, light sensing cells are easier to deal with, since they only have to pass their electrical message to one or more cells. What’s more, the immune system is relatively weak in the eye, which means the chances for stem cell rejection.

 As Chris Mason, a Professor from the University College London, told the BBC:

I think they have made a major step forward here, but the efficiency is still too low for clinical uses. At the moment the numbers of tiny and it will take quite a bit of work to get the numbers up and then the next question is ‘Can you do it in man?’ But I think it is a significant breakthrough which may lead to cell therapies and will give a much expanded knowledge on how to cure blindness.

In short, the results are encouraging and human trials could begin within five years. And given the likelihood for success, blindness could very become a thing of the past within a decade or so.