Robotic Exoskeleton to Help Deliver First Kick of the 2014 World Cup
The Walk Again Project wants to spread the word about exoskeletons, and help realize one paralyzed teen's dream.
By Ellie Zolfagharifard, DailyMail Online - Filed Jan 08, 2014

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil will provide incredible displays of physical skill—but the most impressive performance won’t come from the likes of Rooney or Ronaldo.

It will instead be delivered by a paralysed teenager, who, during the opening ceremony in June, will kick a ball using a robotic body suit controlled by his or her brain.

The exoskeleton, which has been designed as part of the international "Walk Again Project", will use motorised metal braces to support and bend the teenager’s legs.

The suit itself will be controlled by patterns of brain activity detected by electrodes placed either on the scalp or within the brain itself.  

These signals will be sent wirelessly to a computer worn by the wearer, converting them into movement.

The team behind the suit is a collaboration between various universities including Duke University in the U.S., the Technical University of Munich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne among others. 

It plans to incorporate sensors into the exoskeleton that feed information about touch, temperature and force back to the wearer. The feedback is expected to come through a visual display or a vibrating motor.

 "The vibrations can replicate the sensation of touching the ground, rolling off the toe and kicking off again," Gordon Cheng, at the Technical University of Munich, Germany said in an interview with the New Scientist.

The teenager—who is yet to be selected from a group of 10 hopefuls—will undergo training in a virtual reality simulator to translate thoughts into signals.

"We want to galvanise people’s imaginations," Miguel Nicolelis, the Brazilian neuroscientist at Duke University added to the Washington Post. "With enough political will and investment, we could make wheelchairs obsolete."

The body suit is the result of research from the Duke Nicolelis lab that looked into hair-thin and flexible sensors, known as microwires, implanted into the brains of rats and monkeys.

These flexible electrical prongs can detect minute electrical signals generated by hundreds of individual neurons in the animals’ frontal and parietal cortices—the regions that control a vast brain circuit that is responsible for voluntary movements.

In 2000, Professor Nicolelis’ lab reported that a monkey had been able to use power of thought to control a robot arm using these sensors.

More recently, his lab has shown that monkeys can control the movement of both arms on an avatar using just their brain activity.  

To enable the monkeys to control two virtual arms, researchers recorded nearly 500 neurons from multiple areas in both cerebral hemispheres of the animals' brains, the largest number of neurons recorded and reported to date.

Several human quadriplegics have also received implanted brain chips in clinical trials. For instance, Matt Nagle, who was paralysed after being stabbed in the spine, learned to raise, lower and drop after objects after electrodes were implanted in his brain.

Professor Nicolelis is now developing  a new kind of electrode that branches like a tree into a vast network covering a larger volume of the brain.

He hopes this network will help make deliver more complex exoskeletons that can control a greater number of limbs using the power of thought.

 

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