By Holly Giles
This week has marked a breakthrough in rehabilitation technology with a paralysed man taking his first steps in a mind-controlled exoskeleton. This may sound like something from a far-fetched sci-fi plot but new studies show this could actually be a reality.
Thibauld, who was paralysed four years ago after an incident in a nightclub, underwent surgery to implant 64 electrodes into his brain over the areas that control movement. He then learnt how to control an avatar in a virtual simulation using these implants. This was then translated into an exoskeleton this week where Thibauld thinks of the command, it is then sent to a computer and then forwarded to cause movement in the exoskeleton. Despite not being perfect (it scored an accuracy of 71% in its latest tests), Thibauld says the device has been utterly transformative: “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.”
This week certainly marked a big step forward for this program but it is far from completion. Professor Alim-Louis Benabid, the president of the Clinatec executive board, explained the current restrictions on the device: “He does not have the quick and precise movements not to fall, nobody on earth does this. We have [however] solved the problem and shown the principle is correct. This is proof we can extend the mobility of patients in an exoskeleton. This is in [the] direction of giving better quality of life.”
There is still progress to be made until we can expect to see this device in-situ outside of the lab. At the moment they are restricted by the amount of data they can receive from the brain, meaning only 32 of the 64 electrodes are currently being used. However, as computer programs and AI continue to develop we will see these restrictions broken down. There are also plans to develop finger control to allow Thibauld to pick up objects. Until then, Thibauld will continue to control his wheelchair using the implants, with the knowledge that walking in an exoskeleton is no longer a far-fetched fantasy but simply a matter of time.