Neuroscience took center stage at the World Cup as a young man who was paralyzed from the waist down wearing an exoskeleton suit controlled by his brain waves kicked a soccer ball to open the tournament.
A post on the NIH Director's Blog notes that the dramatic debut of the robotic exoskeleton was "was grounded in more than 20 years of scientific studies" and offers "an inspiring glimpse of just one of the many things that can be achieved when science is supported over the long haul." The piece goes on to explain the evolution of the research and a detailed look at the exoskeleton's design and function:
The leader of the team, Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian who co-directs the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering in Durham, N.C., has been working on brain-machine interfaces in various animal models for decades. In a pioneering experiment involving a monkey equipped with brain sensors that sent real-time commands associated with leg movements, Nicolelis showed that the animal could spur a computer-controlled robot located thousands of miles away to walk by simply thinking about walking.
Now, Nicolelis has shown that a similar feat is possible with humans, using a robotic exoskeleton system built in conjunction with German colleagues who are part of the non-profit Walk Again Project. The paralyzed person wears a special cap that contains electrodes that read their brainwaves. To move the plastic-and-aluminum exoskeleton, a person needs to imagine actually doing each phase of his or her desired movements; for example, “start walking,” “turn right,” “kick the ball,” “sit down,” and so on. These brain signals are sent to a computer inside a backpack worn by the person, where they are translated to commands that control the exoskeleton.