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This 28-year-old man was paralyzed from the shoulders down in a fall. He’s attached to a rope holding him stable, but it’s his brain that is propelling him forward. Usually, he has some movement in his biceps and left wrist and he operates a wheelchair with the use of a joystick. This robot, or exoskeleton, is the creation of the French company Clinatec at the CEA Laboratory.Exoskeletons aren’t new, scientists have been working at perfecting them for a while. What makes this one different is that it is being operated by the patient’s brain signals. He has two wireless sensors implanted in the part of his brain which controls his movements. The sensors record electrical signals from his brain and sends commands to the exoskeleton. Climate scientists have published details of how the exoskeleton works in the medical journal, the Lancet. The study has been reviewed in the journal by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Professor of Disability Dr. Tom Shakespeare.Shakespeare is himself paraplegic, with the use of his arms.”Since the 1950s people have been promising to make paralyzed people walk. It’s really one of the goals of medical science. And what’s interesting about this study is that implants at either side of the skull were able to detect and translate into as it were computer movement impulses of the brain so that the individual wished to move and signals were sent enabling them to move. In principle,” says Shakespeare. According to scientists at Clinatec about twenty percent of cervical spinal cord injuries result in people becoming tetraplegic. These are the most severe and devastating of spinal cord injuries resulting in the paralysis of both arms and legs.In this test the lights tell the patient when he should turn his hand, or touch one of the lights. The authors of the study say the trial was very successful.”This person obviously didn’t move in practice what was performed was movements of an avatar on screen and an exoskeleton in all four limbs. And that’s new. It’s never been done from the brain controlling all four limbs. So that’s exciting for this domain of research,” says Shakespeare. According to Clinatec each sensor has a grid of 64 electrodes which collect the brain signals. These are transmitted to a decoding algorithm. This system translates the brain signals into movements the patient thinks about and sends his commands to the exoskeleton.The authors of the study say they are fully aware this is an experiment and does not offer any solution to people who are currently tetraplegic, or quadraplegic.But they say when essential improvements become available the exoskeleton may have the potential to improve the quality of disabled people’s lives. According to the company: “Previous brain-computer studies have used more invasive recording devices implanted beneath the outermost membrane of the brain, where they eventually stop working. They have also been connected to wires, limited to creating movement in just one limb, or have focused on restoring movement to patients’ own muscles.” The study lasted for two years during which the patient did various mental tasks to train the algorithm to understand his thoughts so it could learn more movements. They used exercises like this where the patient is controlling a virtual avatar to play a video game. But the study was not completely successful.Another patient who was meant to be included in the trial was excluded.The study’s authors say this was because of a technical problem.This basically meant the brain implants, or sensors, stopped communicating any recorded information from the brain and they had to be removed.Shakespeare believes the technology is very impressive, but he doesn’t see it as a real solution for disabled people.He says: “It is a way forward. The science is amazing technology does all sorts of things but we know through the world and this is a centre of global health at the London School that only 15 percent of people have the mobility devices that they need. You know this wheelchair that I sit in designed for me cost 2000 pounds. What we need to do is to make this sort of technology which transforms lives available to more people in the developing world.” According to Shakespeare, it’s technologies like Alexa and Google Home which will change the lives of people confined by disability.
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