The FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil starts today, but before we can get to the many feats of teamwork and talent, the opening ceremonies will feature an incredible display of neuroscience technology. A paralyzed person—one of eight Brazilian men and women who have trained for months—will perform the first official kick of the tournament with the help of a brain-controlled robotic exoskeleton.
It's a public demonstration of the work done by the Walk Again Project, an international collaboration of over 100 scientists, led by Professor Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University and the International Institute for Neurosciences of Natal, Brazil. Years of research have resulted in an exoskeleton controlled by monitoring electrical activity in the brain that reflects the wearer's intentions. As the person inside thinks about stepping forward, the robot-like appendages lift their leg to carry out the command. You can watch a quick video about a 2008 collaborative experiment that inspired this technology here:
"Our brains are very adaptive in the way that we can extend our embodiment to use tools, as in driving a car or eating with chopsticks," says Professor Gordon Cheng, head of the Institute for Cognitive Systems at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM), one of the leading partners in Walk Again. "After the Kyoto experiment, we felt certain that the brain could also liberate a paralyzed person to walk using an external body."
But this new system provides more than mobility; it also seeks to restore sensation. It's called CellulARSkin technology, created by TUM, and it allows the newly-mobile to interact with their surroundings in a sensory way. In the Walk Again Project, CellulARSkin on the bottom of the feet sends signals to tiny motors that vibrate against the patient's arms.
The World Cup demonstration does not represent an endpoint for these projects; there's still much to be done before the exoskeleton and artificial skin truly represent viable options for paralyzed people. But it is a powerful testament to the steps science is taking to address the issue.