During the opening ceremony in Sao Paolo today, a paralyzed teenager (who remains anonymous) will rise from a wheelchair, take several steps, and kick a soccer ball into a goal thanks to a battery-powered, mind-controlled exoskeleton developed by an international team of more than 150 scientists.
The exoskeleton, which has been designed as part of the international "Walk Again Project", will use motorized metal braces to support and bend the teenager’s legs. The suit uses a cap placed on the patient's head to pick up brain signals and relay them to a computer in the exoskeleton's backpack, converting them into movements.
This then decodes the signals and sends them to the legs. A battery in the backpack allows for approximately two hours of use.
"It's the first time an exoskeleton has been controlled by brain activity and offered feedback to the patients," Brazilian neuroscientist Dr Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University and lead developer of the exoskeleton, tells the AFP news agency. "Doing a demonstration in a stadium is something very much outside our routine in robotics. It's never been done before."
This spring, the final tests were done in France, while a group of eight people trained on a virtual-reality simulator in Sao Paolo.
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.
"The big challenge was to overcome the skepticism," Nicolelis says. "We knew this would be possible. Most people thought this was a great idea but that it was not possible."