During the opening ceremonies at this past summer’s World Cup, a young man paralyzed from the mid-chest down walked onto the field and kicked the first ball of the event. The demonstration—in front of 65,000 fans and an estimated one-billion TV viewers—was based on a battery-powered “Iron Man” exoskeleton with sensors built into the suit to detect muscle movements and a control system guided by brain waves. The volunteer participant, 29 year-old Juliano Pinto, wore an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap dotted with electrodes that picked up and magnified the faint electrical signals emanating through his skull.
The person behind the demonstration was Duke University neurologist Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., Ph.D., the author of this month’s Cerebrum feature, “Brain-to-Brain Interfaces: When Reality Meets Science Fiction.” Nicolelis is a pioneer in “brain-computer interfaces” (BCI)—defined as a direct connection between a human (or animal) brain with an external device. These connections range from non-invasive technologies, which recognize brain signals from outside the brain, to invasive technologies that involve surgery and implanting electrodes. While many of these technologies aim to restore function to disabled people, others aim to improve upon or augment existing functions.
Research on BCIs began in the 1970s at the University of California Los Angeles under a grant from the National Science Foundation. Fast-forward to 2003, when Nicolelis first envisioned a bionic suit while working with primates on brain machine interfaces (BMI). A few years later, he demonstrated that, via electrodes, the brain of a monkey could generate movements in a robot. He subsequently gathered an international coalition of scientists and engineers to develop a mind-controlled bionic suit that could enable people with paraplegia to walk. He called it the Walk Again Project. By 2009, Nicolelis was confident that he would soon have a prototype BMI walking device.
Nicolelis’s Cerebrum story traces some of the early technological breakthroughs and animal experiments that led up to the demonstration in Brazil, and his and others’ efforts to advance the research to the point where people with spinal cord injuries can functionally reconnect brain areas where communication may have been disrupted by brain damage.
Writes Nicolelis: “Right now this latter proposition may sound farfetched. However, seeking such a path has become a hallmark of our laboratory during the past decade. During this period, we have successfully translated similarly abstract basic-science ideas into potential new therapies for untreatable epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and disabling paralysis. All of these therapies are currently undergoing clinical testing worldwide.”