A man paralysed in all four limbs was able to move using the legs of an exoskeleton, as well as bend his elbow and shrug his shoulders...
French researchers have developed an exoskeleton which could provide important breakthroughs for tetraplegics. A 28-year-old man from Lyon had been paralysed in all four limbs after suffering a fall four years ago, but in a world first, he can now use his thoughts to direct the movements of this 'motorised armour'. "It is a message of hope for everyone in the same state as me: some things are possible, even when you are suffering from a severe disability," said Thibault to the AFP after becoming the first patient in a clinical trial carried out by Clinatec, a biomedical research centre in Grenoble.
10 years of research
The prototype is the fruit of 10 years of research and is based on electrodes that are implanted into the skull which then "capture the signals sent by the brain and translate them into motor signals", explained Alim-Louis Benabid, a professor at Grenoble Alpes University. For people paralysed in all four limbs due to a fracture of the spinal column, "the brain is still capable of generating the orders which move the arms and the legs, but there is no-one there to carry them out", added the neurosurgery specialist, who is the main author of a study published last Friday in The Lancet Neurology.
Researchers have demonstrated that it is possible to correctly capture this electric activity in a continuous way and transmit it almost in real time, without a wired connection with the computer which decodes it. There is still a long way to go, however, before this exoskeleton can be used in everyday lives.
Training on a simulator
The young man who had the electrodes implanted just over two years ago has been training at home for a number of months now on a simulator. Using the implant, he was able to carry out movements on a virtual avatar on a television screen. He then went to Grenoble three days a month to carry out the same exercises directly on the exoskeleton, and this saw him able to move the legs of the robot, bend its elbow and shrug its shoulders.
"I never thought that we would be able to get this far," said Thibault, who was "delighted (to) be able to help science to progress", despite the fatigue brought about by the training and the long road still ahead of him. Another patient will have the electrodes implanted in November, followed by two others in the months thereafter, Prof. Benabid explained.
A 'repaired man' not an 'augmented man'
The next stage of the clinical trial will add in the ability to pick up an object with the hand as well as improving the balance of the exoskeleton which is the main weak point of all robots of this type. To begin with, this interface could enable tetraplegics within a few years to move their own wheelchairs or steer a motorised arm, thus considerably improving their independence.
"It’s not transhumanism – it’s merely responding to a medical problem, a human body that has been injured and which has deficits. This is a 'repaired man', not an 'augmented man'," the professor insisted. Other teams of researchers have already implanted electrodes to use the brain to stimulate the muscles of patients who are paralysed or had limbs amputated, but Prof. Benabid’s study is the first to directly use the signals of the brain to control a robot exoskeleton.
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