World Cup 2014 to Open with Exoskeleton Kick

WorldCup_610x343This 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.

ReWalk1The 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.

miguelnicolelis_secom508x339Nicolelis 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.

neuronsUsing 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.

exoskeleton_FIFA2014German-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.

woman-robotic-arm_650x366In 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.

Walk-Again-Project-Kick-Ball-537x358With 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:



Biomedical Breakthroughs: Bionerves and Restored Sensation

restoring_mobilityThese days, advances in prosthetic devices, bionic limbs and exoskeletons continue to advance and amaze. Not only are doctors and medical researchers able to restore mobility and sensation to patients suffering from missing limbs, they are now crossing a threshold where they are able to restore these abilities and faculties to patients suffering from partial or total paralysis.

This should come as no surprise, seeing as how the latest biomedical advances – which involve controlling robotic limbs with brain-computer interfacing – offer a very obvious solution for paralyzed individuals. In their case, no robotic limbs or bionic attachments are necessary to restore ambulatory motion since these were not lost. Instead, what is needed is to restore motor control to compensate for the severed nerves.

braingate1Thanks to researchers working at Case Western University in Ohio, a way forward is being proposed. Here, a biomedical team is gearing up to combine the Braingate cortical chip, developed at Brown University, with their own Functional Electric Stimulation (FES) platform. Through this combination, they hope to remove robots from the equation entirely and go right to the source.

It has long been known that electrical stimulation can directly control muscles, but attempts to do this in the past artificially has often been inaccurate (and therefore painful and potentially damaging) to the patient. Stimulating the nerves directly using precisely positioned arrays is a much better approach, something that another team at Case Western recently demonstrated thought their “nerve cuff electrode”.

cuff-electrodeThis electrode is a direct stimulation device that is small enough to be placed around small segments of nerve. The Western team used the cuff to provide an interface for sending data from sensors in the hand back to the brain using sensory nerves in the arm. With FES, the same kind of cuff electrode can also be used to stimulate nerves going the other direction, in other words, to the muscles.

The difficulty in such a scheme, is that even if the motor nerves can be physically separated from the sensory nerves and traced to specific muscles, the exact stimulation sequences needed to make a proper movement are hard to find. To achieve this, another group at Case Western has developed a detailed simulation of how different muscles work together to control the arm and hand.

braingate2-img_assist_custom-500x288Their model consists of 138 muscle elements distributed over 29 muscles, which act on 11 joints. The operational procedure is for the patient to watch the image of the virtual arm while they naturally generate neural commands that the BrainGate chip picks up to move the arm. In practice, this means trying to make the virtual arm touch a red spot to make it turn green.

Currently in clinical trials, the Braingate2 chip is being developed with the hope of not only stimulating muscles, but generating the same kinds of feedback and interaction that real muscle movement creates. The eventual plan is that the patient and the control algorithm will learn together in tandem so that a training screen will not be needed at all and a patient will be able to move on their own without calibrating the device.

bionic-handBut at the same time, biotech enhancements that are restoring sensation to amputee victims are also improving apace. Consider the bionic hand developed by Silvestro Micerna of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. Unlike previous bionic hands, which rely on electrodes to receive nerve signals to control the hand’s movement, his device sends electronic signals back to simulate the feeling of touch.

Back in February of 2013, Micerna and his research team began testing their bionic hand, and began clinical trials on a volunteer just last month. Their volunteer, a man named Dennis Aabo Sørensen from Denmark, lost his arm in a car accident nine years ago, and has since become the first amputee to experience artificially-induced sensation in real-time.

prosthetic_originalIn a laboratory setting wearing a blindfold and earplugs, Sørensen was able to detect how strongly he was grasping, as well as the shape and consistency of different objects he picked up with his prosthetic. Afterwards, Sørensen described the experience to reporters, saying:

The sensory feedback was incredible. I could feel things that I hadn’t been able to feel in over nine years. When I held an object, I could feel if it was soft or hard, round or square.

The next step will involve miniaturizing the sensory feedback electronics for a portable prosthetic, as well as fine-tuning the sensory technology for better touch resolution and increased awareness about the movement of fingers. They will also need to assess how long the electrodes can remain implanted and functional in the patient’s nervous system, though Micerna’s team is confident that they would last for many years.

bionic-hand-trialMicerna and his team were also quick to point out that Sørensen’s psychological strength was a major asset in the clinical trial. Not only has he been forced to adapt to the loss of his arm nine years ago, he was also extremely willing to face the challenge of having experienced touch again, but for only a short period of time. But as he himself put it:

I was more than happy to volunteer for the clinical trial, not only for myself, but to help other amputees as well… There are two ways you can view this. You can sit in the corner and feel sorry for yourself. Or, you can get up and feel grateful for what you have.

The study was published in the February 5, 2014 edition of Science Translational Medicine, and represents a collaboration called Lifehand 2 between several European universities and hospitals. And although a commercially-available sensory-enhanced prosthetic may still be years away, the study provides the first step towards a fully-realizable bionic hand.

braingate_drinkassistYes, between implantable electronics that can read out brainwaves and nerve impulses, computers programs that are capable of making sense of it all, and robotic limbs that are integrated to these machines and our bodies, the future is looking very interesting indeed. In addition to restoring ambulatory motion and sensation, we could be looking at an age where there is no such thing as “permanent injury”.

And in the meantime, be sure to check out this video of Sørensen’s clinical trial with the EPFL’s bionic hand: