Brain waves can now control the functioning of computer cursors, robotic arms and, soon, an entire suit: an exoskeleton that will allow a paraplegic to walk and maybe even move gracefully.
Sending signals from the brain’s outer rindlike cortex to initiate movement in the exoskeleton represents the state of the art for a number of bioelectrical technologies perfected in recent years.
The 2014 World Cup in Brazil will serve as a proving ground for a brain-controlled exoskeleton if, as expected, a handicapped teenager delivers the ceremonial opening kick.
In 2014 billions of viewers worldwide may remember the opening game of the World Cup in Brazil for more than just the goals scored by the Brazilian national team and the red cards given to its adversary. On that day my laboratory at Duke University, which specializes in developing technologies that allow electrical signals from the brain to control robotic limbs, plans to mark a milestone in overcoming paralysis.
If we succeed in meeting still formidable challenges, the first ceremonial kick of the World Cup game may be made by a paralyzed teenager, who, flanked by the two contending soccer teams, will saunter onto the pitch clad in a robotic body suit. This suit—or exoskeleton, as we call it—will envelop the teenager’s legs. His or her first steps onto the field will be controlled by motor signals originating in the kicker’s brain and transmitted wirelessly to a computer unit the size of a laptop in a backpack carried by our patient. This computer will be responsible for translating electrical brain signals into digital motor commands so that the exoskeleton can first stabilize the kicker’s body weight and then induce the robotic legs to begin the back-and-forth coordinated movements of a walk over the manicured grass. Then, on approaching the ball, the kicker will visualize placing a foot in contact with it. Three hundred milliseconds later brain signals will instruct the exoskeleton’s robotic foot to hook under the leather sphere, Brazilian style, and boot it aloft.
This scientific demonstration of a radically new technology, undertaken with collaborators in Europe and Brazil, will convey to a global audience of billions that brain control of machines has moved from lab demos and futuristic speculation to a new era in which tools capable of bringing mobility to patients incapacitated by injury or disease may become a reality. We are on our way, perhaps by the next decade, to technology that links the brain with mechanical, electronic or virtual machines. This development will restore mobility, not only to accident and war victims but also to patients with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s and other disorders that disrupt motor behaviors that impede arm reaching, hand grasping, locomotion and speech production. Neuroprosthetic devices—or brain-machine interfaces—will also allow scientists to do much more than help the disabled. They will make it possible to explore the world in revolutionary ways by providing healthy human beings with the ability to augment their sensory and motor skills.
In this futuristic scenario, voluntary electrical brain waves, the biological alphabet that underlies human thinking, will maneuver large and small robots remotely, control airships from afar, and perhaps even allow the sharing of thoughts and sensations of one individual with another over what will become a collective brain-based network.
The lightweight body suit intended for the kicker, who has not yet been selected, is still under development. A prototype, though, is now under construction at the lab of my great friend and collaborator Gordon Cheng of the Technical University of Munich—one of the founding members of the Walk Again Project, a nonprofit, international collaboration among the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering, the Technical University of Munich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, and the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal in Brazil. A few new members, including major research institutes and universities all over the world, will join this international team in the next few months.
The project builds on nearly two decades of pioneering work on brain-machine interfaces at Duke—research that itself grew out of studies dating back to the 1960s, when scientists first attempted to tap into animal brains to see if a neural signal could be fed into a computer and thereby prompt a command to initiate motion in a mechanical device. Back in 1990 and throughout the first decade of this century, my Duke colleagues and I pioneered a method through which the brains of both rats and monkeys could be implanted with hundreds of hair-thin and pliable sensors, known as microwires. Over the past two decades we have shown that, once implanted, the flexible electrical prongs can detect minute electrical signals, or action potentials, generated by hundreds of individual neurons distributed throughout the animals’ frontal and parietal cortices—the regions that define a vast brain circuit responsible for the generation of voluntary movements.
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