Technology A mind-controlled exoskeleton helped a paralyzed man walk again
This hip-hugging exosuit uses AI to make walking and running easier
Robotic devices have been used to help people walk or run in rehabilitation settings, but until now, they've been tethered and limited to a single action, like walking or running. In a paper published in Science today, a team of researchers explain how they're going to change that. The researchers -- from Harvard University and the University of Nebraska Omaha -- have developed a portable exosuit that uses AI to assist users with both walking and running. The robotic exosuit is part of DARPA's former Warrior Web program and has been years in the making. Worn at the waist and thighs, it's designed to work with the wearer's gluteal muscles by adding torque to the hip joint.
A paralyzed man regained the ability to walk with the help of a robotic exoskeleton that he controlled with his mind. Unlike other, more invasive, this one used electrodes implanted above the brain's outer membrane, not in the brain itself. That could reduce the risk of infection and other obstacles that have limited the success of mind-controlled robotics.
As part of ain France, the patient, who goes by Thibault, agreed to have two five-centimeter discs of his skull replaced with brain sensors, each with 64 electrodes. The researchers mapped Thibault's brain to determine which areas become active when he thinks about walking or moving his arms and used those maps to train the system. Thibault first practice by imagining walking and moving an avatar on a computer screen. He was then strapped to the 65 kg exoskeleton suit and successfully used it to walk.
These robo-shorts are the precursor to a true soft exoskeleton
When someone says "robotic exoskeleton," the power loaders from Aliens are what come to mind for most people (or at least me), but the real things will be much different: softer, smarter, and used for much more ordinary tasks. The latest such exo from Harvard is so low-profile you could wear it around the house. Designed by researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute (in collaboration with several other institutions), which focuses on soft robotics and bio-inspired mechanisms, the exosuit isn't for heavy lifting or combating xenomorphs but simply walking and running a little bit more easily.
The system isn't perfect yet. It still requires overhead support to keep the user from falling, but because the electrodes are not implanted directly in the brain, they have a reduced risk of brain infection. Previous experiments, which placed the electrodes in the brain, stopped working when cells built up around the electrodes. Researchers don't expect that to happen with these, and Thibault's electrodes are still working after 27 months. With some fine tuning, the researchers say this system could improve patients' quality of life, and with shrinking tech, it could eventually be less cumbersome.
This exoskeleton connected to the brain allowed a quadriplegic to walk
Paralyzed four limbs since a fall four years ago, Thibault today manages to direct the movements of an exoskeleton, a kind of motorized armor. A first conducted by French researchers, which opens important prospects for quadriplegics. "This is a message of hope for people in the same state as me: there are things possible, even if you have a big handicap," says AFP the young 28-year-old Lyonnais, the first patient of a clinical trial conducted by Clinatec, a biomedical research center of the CEA, in Grenoble.
The prototype, resulting from ten years of research of several teams, relies on electrodes implanted in the skull, which will "capture the signals sent by the brain and translate them into motor signals", described to AFP Alim-Louis Benabid , emeritus professor at the University of Grenoble Alpes.
In the paralyzed four limbs following a fracture of the spine, "the brain is still able to generate the orders that usually move the arms and legs, but there is no one who performs them", continues the neurosurgery specialist, lead author of a study published Friday in The Lancet Neurology. Injuries to the spinal cord result in quadriplegia (paralysis of the four limbs) in about 20% of patients.
The case of Thibault is a "proof of concept": researchers have shown that it is possible to correctly capture this electrical activity continuously and transmit it virtually in real time and wirelessly to the computer that decodes them.
But the way is still long before you can use this exoskeleton in everyday life.How did he train?
The young man, who was implanted electrodes a little over two years ago, trained at home for several months on a simulator: thanks to his implant, he managed to make movements to one virtual avatar on the screen of his TV. "I had to learn again little by little." The brain plasticity that we find the orders to send to get the right movements, much more flexible, much more natural, "says Thibault, who was bedridden since his accident .
He then went three days a month to Grenoble to do the same exercises directly on the exoskeleton. Result: he can advance the legs of the robot, bend the elbow, lift the shoulders ...
"I did not think we could go that far," he says, trusting his "pleasure" to "be able to do advance the science ", despite the fatigue associated with these trainings and the remaining path.
"When we had all the pains, all the sufferings that I could live, I have no frustration, it has always been a pleasure to be able to participate" in this research.
Another patient will be implanted electrodes in November, followed by two more in the coming months, says Professor Benabid."This is not transhumanism"
The continuation of the clinical trial will acquire the ability to grasp an object with the hand and improve the balance of the exoskeleton, the big weak point of all robots of this type. "This requires very heavy calculations and very fast reaction times, which we are working on, using artificial intelligence," explains the researcher.
In a first step, this interface could allow in a few years to quadriplegic people to direct their wheelchair or guide a motorized arm, which would greatly improve their autonomy, he hopes.
"This is not transhumanism: we are responding to a medical problem, a human body that has been injured and has deficits. man repaired + and not the + man +, "insists the professor, renowned for his work on deep brain stimulation and Parkinson's disease.
Other teams of researchers have already implanted electrodes to stimulate the muscles of paralyzed or amputated patients, a rapidly developing area called the "direct neural interface" or "brain-machine interface".
But Professor Benabid's study is the first to directly use brain signals to control an exoskeleton robot.
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