A paralysed man who lost his ability to walk five years ago was able to walk again thanks to a recent breakthrough in brain-computer interface (BCI) technology by researchers from different University of California campuses.
People became exposed to BCI while watching the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when a man paralysed from the waist down was able to kick a ceremonial goal thanks to the assistance of a robotic exoskeleton suit.
But the 26-year-old man who tested the UC technology was the first paraplegic to walk again without the assistance of robotic limbs.
The man wore an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap, which presses flat metal discs against the scalp that are able to measure electrical impulses from the brain. A small amplifyer took the feed from the EEG cap and wirelessly delivered it to a computer.
The computer uses an algorithm to suss out what signals are focused on the act of walking (or not walking, it’s just as important to get the message of stopping) and ignores signals related to any other act, such as talking or moving a different part of the body.
The computer then sent the signals related to walking to a microcontroller that the man was wearing.
If the microcontroller received signals for walking, it made electrodes placed around the knees begin muscle contractions, which then began the act of walking. When the man thought about not walking, the electrodes ceased the muscle contractions.
“The guy who used this technology was, five years after his injury, still able to maintain brainwaves associated with walking and able to control this over the course of several months and hold a conversation,” Christine King, lead author of the study and researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Tech Insider in an interview.
There was a lot of preparatory steps that the man had to take before the technology could actually help him walk. First, he had to learn how to deliver the message of walking of again, which he practiced by making an avatar walk in virtual reality.
“In his mind he’s like ‘this is crazy, this will never work’ but by the second and third sessions he started learning how he has to think about walking to get the system to work,” King said.
She added that if a person cannot master virtually controlling an avatar within five sessions, the technology will most likely be unable to help that person walk again.
The most difficult preparatory step was strength training because the muscles and bones were very weak considering five years had passed since the injury. King said it took 17 sessions to build enough strength so that he could support his weight.
Nineteen weeks later, the man was able to perform 30 walking tests, according to the study.
There’s still a long way to go before anything like this will be seen on the market. The study was only done on one person, so it is important to perform more testing on different people.
Another main concern is getting a battery pack for the EEG cap that will last long enough. The man who successfully used the technology had to wear a battery pack for everything to work, and for obvious reasons, the battery would need to last a long time.
King said she would also want to swap out the EEG cap for a small implant that would be inserted into the brain.
“No one wants to walk around with cap on their head and pads on the body,” she said.
For now, the technology only works when it’s in range of a computer. But in the future, King would want to hook the technology up with a smartphone or another portable device so that the person can move freely.
See how brain-computer interface helped this paralysed man walk:
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