From brain to legs, via a computer

A BCI system allows a man whose legs had been paralyzed to walk without robotic support. Credit: courtesy of UCI’s Brain Computer Interface Lab

Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI) have been the subject of several of my posts. Indeed, the progress in this area has reached the point where more and more applications are enabled.

Controlling robots (including exoskeleton) with the brain has been demonstrated several times, controlling a pointer on a display has also become commonplace.

Now I see a news from University of California at Irvine reporting the success of using a BCI to connect with muscles in the legs of a person that has been paralysed for 5 years following a damage to his spinal cord.

First the result shows that the brain control of paralysed legs remain active also after several years of silence. Secondly it proves that technology can identify among the many signals picked up by sensors on the head the ones that refer to the brain activity related to legs movement. Third that these signals can be used by a computer to activate the legs muscles bypassing the damaged spinal cord.

It is not turning a switch. It actually required several months to exercise the legs muscles, that lost their strength after 5 years of silence, plus long hours in training the computer, and the brain, to finally single out the brain electrical activity that would eventually activate the legs muscles through the computer.

The person was able to take a short walk, a twelve foot one, and had to be assisted, so one cannot claim that the walking function has been restored. Anyhow remember the first flight of a plane and look at what we have today. These results clearly demonstrated the possibility and now it is a matter of perfecting and possibly find alternative solutions but we have moved for crazy dreams to hard engineering.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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