Researchers in France have developed an exoskeleton suit that can be manipulated with a person's mind, via a surgical brain computer interface (BCI) implant. This suit allowed a paralyzed man to move both his arms and legs for the first time since suffering an injury that left him without the ability to perform those motor functions.
His name is Thibault (he did not want to share his surname), and he used to be an optician. Now 30 years old, Thibault fell around 50 feet at a night club four years ago, which injured his spinal cord and left him paralyzed. He spent two years in the hospital.
In 2017, however, he agreed to participate in a joint exoskeleton trial between Clinatec, a biomedical research center, and the University of Grenoble. The trial started with brain implants to control a virtual character in a computer game, then progressed to the exoskeleton.
Using An Exoskeleton To Walk
There is quite a wide gap between the current testing and actually offering an exoskeleton that can restore movement in paralyzed patients. However, the efforts and work are encouraging.
"The BCI project aims to demonstrate that it is possible to drive an exoskeleton thanks to an implant that records cortical signals, opening up the prospect of a better future for people with motor function disabilities. The project is based on the fact that when we imagine making a movement, we trigger the same electrical activity in the motor cortex of the brain as when we actually perform that activity," Clinatec explains.
Through this project, Clinatec aims to record these electrical signals, known as ElectroCorticoGrams, and decode them to drive complex objects, such as moving the limbs of an exoskeleton. Details of the latest research are in a report that sits behind a paywall at The Lancet.
The suit weighs over 140 pounds. For this testing, it sits in a harness attached to the ceiling to prevent Thibault from falling over. This means testing is limited to the laboratory at the moment. Professor Alim-Louis Benabid, president of the Clinatec executive board, told the BBC "this is far from autonomous walking."
"He does not have the quick and precise movements not to fall, nobody on earth does this," Prof Benabid said.
The testing is encouraging, though. Touching objects is a tricky task, as it involves moving both the upper and lower arms, and rotating the wrist. In those tasks, Thibault was successful 71 percent of the time. Prof Benabid views this as "proof we can extend the mobility of patients in an exoskeleton."
Future Of Brain Machine Mobility
Clinatec will continue to research and develop the technology. It's obviously complex stuff—the tech is limited by how much data can be read from the brain and then interpreted and sent to the exoskeleton, all in real time. Nevertheless, the research team wants to advance the functionality to also include finger control, so patients can pick up objects.
A more immediate use, however, is being able to control a wheelchair through a brain implant, rather than a full-on exoskeleton.
This is all exciting stuff, and it's not just Clinatec that looking into it. Just recently, Intel and Brown University announced they are working on a DARPA-funded project called Intelligent Spine Interface that uses artificial intelligence (AI) technology to restore movement and bladder control in patients who have severe spinal cord injuries.
As for the exoskeleton, though it might be a long ways off, the early results are impressive. In testing, it proved reusable for up to seven weeks before needing to be recalibrated, and was stable for 24 months.
Images: The Lancet and Clinatec