A mind-controlled exoskeleton suit has enabled a quadriplegic man to move all four of his limbs again. Thibault, who did not wish his second name to be revealed, took his momentous first steps in the robo-suit.
Thibault was paralysed following a C4-C5 spinal cord injury he suffered when he fell 15 metres during a nightclub incident. Commenting on his first steps in the exoskeleton he said he felt like the “first man on the moon”.
After spending two years in hospital with his injury, he joined the exoskeleton trial with the Clinatec research centre and the University of Grenoble. To control the software, he had to have surgery to place two implants on the surface of his brain, covering the areas of the brain that control movement.
Each implant has sixty-four electrodes that can read brain activity and transmit the instructions to a nearby computer. Highly advanced computer software then translates these brainwaves into instructions for controlling the robo-suit.
Before walking in the suit he practised using the implants to control a virtual character in a computer game, he then progressed to walking in the suit. “It was like [being the] first man on the Moon. I didn’t walk for two years.
“I forgot what it is to stand, I forgot I was taller than a lot of people in the room,” he said. Controlling the robotic arms took longer to learn, he explained. “It was very difficult because it is a combination of multiple muscles and movements. This is the most impressive thing I do with the exoskeleton.”
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At present the exoskeleton is only being used within the lab environment and is suspended from an overhead harness to stop him from falling. Although the 65kg robo-suit does not complete restore function it does mark a significant advance on similar approaches that enable people to control a single limb with their thoughts.
Thibault was 71% successful in tasks where he had to touch specific targets using the exoskeleton to move his upper and lower arms and rotate his wrists.
“This is far from autonomous walking,” Professor Alim-Louis Benabid, the president of the Clinatec executive board, told BBC News. “He does not have the quick and precise movements not to fall, nobody on earth does this.”
Benabid is responsible for developing deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease. “We have solved the problem and shown the principle is correct. This is proof we can extend the mobility of patients in an exoskeleton,” he continued. “This is in [the] direction of giving better quality of life.”
At present the scientists behind the technology are limited by the volume of data they can read from the brain, send to the a computer, interpret and send to the exoskelton in real-time. However, they say they can continue to refine the technology.
For the system to work they have 350 milliseconds to go from thought to movement otherwise the system becomes hard to control. This means out of the 64 electrodes on each implant, the researchers are using only 32.
The scientists have plans to develop finger control to allow Thibault to pick up and move objects. They also want to make the exoskeleton self-balancing.“What we need is higher computation speed – we don’t yet have the reaction time,” Benabid said.
Before Thibault joined the trial there had been another participant, however, his implants stopped working within a few seconds of being turned on, due to a technical fault. However, now that issue has been resolved and Thibault’s implants have been working for 27 months so far, the team is preparing to put implants into three more people. While researchers say there is still a long way to go, this breakthrough is being hailed as pivotal in managing tetraplegia.
The project was funded by the French Atomic Energy Commission, French Ministry of Health, Edmond J Safra Philanthropic Foundation, Fondation Motrice, Fondation Nanosciences, Institut Carnot, Fonds de Dotation Clinatec.