Walk Again
June 11, 2014

Walk Again

I am not really a sports guy. At all. Do not care for them. Never saw the point. Cannot stand how people can get paid millions and millions of dollars to play a game. Given, I admit that their physicality and talent are things to admire, but so are the trained hands of a doctor. The knowledge of a scientist. The patients and dedication of teachers, yet none of these make near as much as your average professional athlete. Part of it is also bitterness, I am sure. I had family who would go to many of my cousins’ basketball games, but never once come to one of my martial arts tournaments and as a kid, that can really send some unpleasant messages to you.

Anyway, point being, I do not really watch sports all that often. I occasionally watch some football with my roommate, but that is more of me being in the same room while he watches football. However, I will be paying special attention on June 12, for the opening of the FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Not because I care all that much about soccer/football, but because of who is set to make the opening kick of the game.

The opening kick is set to be made by a paralyzed person wearing a new brain-controlled, robotic exoskeleton designed by researchers of the Walk Again Project.

The Walk Again Project is an international collaboration of more than a hundred scientists and researchers. The team is led by Professor Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University and the International Institute for Neurosciences of Natal, Brazil, Professor Gordon Cheng, head of the Institute for Cognitive Systems at the Technische Universität München (TUM). Together, they have designed a prototype exoskeleton that is designed to allow those who are paralyzed to walk again, under their own power, a remarkable achievement set to make its public debut with the kickoff of the FIFA World Cup.

This project has been working with eight Brazilian patients between the ages of 20 and 40 who are all paralyzed from the waist down. These brave men and women have been training for months to use this remarkable exoskeleton. The system of which works by recording the electrical activity of the user’s brain, recognizing their intentions – such as walking or kicking a soccer-ball – and then translating that into a physical action in the same way our own brain impulses work. It is also set to give the user tactile feedback using sensitive artificial skin created by Professor Cheng called “CellulARSkin.”

The CellulARSkin is being used in two different ways in the Walk Again Project. First, it is integrated with the exoskeleton at the bottoms of the feet so that the artificial skin can send signals to the tiny motors that will vibrate against the patients arm, giving them a tactile sensation that they can connect with walking. By training with this method of indirect stimuli, the patient will be able to learn to incorporate the robotic legs and feet into their own body schema. The CellulARSkin is also being used to help the medical team monitor the patient for any signs of distress or discomfort while using the system.

While this is certainly going to be a groundbreaking event, the Walk Again Project is far from complete. According to Professor Cheng, “I think some people will see the World Cup opening as the end, but it’s really just the beginning. This may be major milestone, but we have a lot more work to do. Also, I see it as a great tribute to all the patients’ hard work and their bravery!”

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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