Virtual reality and robotics are working together to help paralyzed patients walk again.
Paralyzed people are regaining feeling in their legs, using their brains to control robotic exoskeletons. It’s a one-year program whose purpose is to teach patients how to walk using a robotic exoskeleton. The patient uses their thoughts to control the legs of the avatar, which is a virtual version of themselves on a computer. A skull cap is used to pick up the brainwaves of the individual via electrodes.
Eight people participated in the Walk Again Project in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Five of them have been paralyzed for at least five years, and two for over a decade.
Four of the participants reported sensations and muscle control that was so apparent and strong that doctors actually changed their diagnosis from complete paralysis to partial. The majority of patients said they had improved control of their bodily functions as well, reducing the need for laxatives or catheters.
“We couldn’t have predicted this surprising clinical outcome,” says Miguel Nicolelis, of Duke University, North Carolina, who led the team’s study.
“Patients who used a brain-machine interface for a long period experienced improvements in motor behaviour, tactile sensations and visceral functions below the level of the spinal cord injury. Until now, nobody has seen recovery of these functions in a patient so many years after being diagnosed with complete paralysis.”
The patients spent at least two hours a week using their brains to control these devices. Asked to imagine themselves walking in a digital reality world, it appeared “the training reinserted the representation of lower limbs into the patients’ brains,” reports Nicolelis.
The research group believes an increase of training, perhaps a part of a weekly regimen, could be added to the rehabilitation process to help patients re-engage spinal cord nerves that survived car crashes, falls and other paralyzing trauma.