This is a big step for science and a bigger message of hope for all paralyzed people. In Grenoble, France, a tetraplegic patient can now walk again, thanks to an exoskeleton controlled by his brain. What if tomorrow we could equip all disabled people with an exoskeleton like this?
Using brain signals to drive an exoskeleton
This is a real breakthrough in the field of motor skills. This exoskeleton has allowed Thibault, a 28-year-old, to find a new breath and perceive sensations of motor skills. Four years ago, his life permanently changed when he fell from a 12-meter high balcony. Following this accident, the young man was paralyzed from the shoulders to the feet. Cervical spinal cord injuries leave about 20% of patients paralysed in all four limbs and are the most severe injury of their kind.
After months of training where Thibault tried harnessing his brain signals to control a computer-simulated avatar to perform basic movements, Thibault finally managed to control this exoskeleton to walk again, thanks to his brain.
For Alim Louis Benabid, professor emeritus at Grenoble and lead author of the study: “Despite damage to the spinal cord, the brain is still able to generate commands that can move normally arms and legs. The exoskeleton is needed to execute these commands.”
The doctors at the origin of this experiment are calling this a breakthrough. However, they are keen to point out that such a technology will not be accessible to the general public for several years. Indeed, the cost of such equipment is currently very high.
Yet this exoskeleton could radically transform the lives of paralyzed people by giving them a form of independence and a decent quality of life. Many companies are currently working on exoskeleton prototypes all around the world. Among the most promising ones, Wandercraft, a Parisian startup that launched its own exoskeleton called Atalante last July.
A message of hope for paralyzed people
Several studies have used implants to stimulate patients’ muscles but the Grenoble research is the first to use brain signals to control a robot exoskeleton.
Experts involved in the study said it could potentially lead to brain-controlled wheelchairs for paralysed patients. “This isn’t about turning a man into a machine but about responding to a medical problem,” said Benabid. “We’re talking about ‘repaired man’, not ‘augmented man’.”
But Thibault said the trial offered a “message of hope to people like me… When you can not do anything with your body, you will tap into the capacity of your brain. Even if I can not go home tomorrow in this exoskeleton, I now know that I can walk again. I walk when I want and stop when I want. This exoskeleton is amazing.”
Photograph: Thibault walks using the exoskeleton. Clinatech/AFP/Getty