French researchers say a paralyzed 28-year-old man was able to use a mind-controlled robotic suit to walk for the first time since he experienced a severe cervical spine injury four years ago.
In a report published in The Lancet Neurology journal, researchers from the University of Grenoble in France — who partnered with the biomedical research center, Clinatec — announced they had developed a whole-body mechanical suit that can be controlled by two implants placed on the surface of the brain.
The implants let the man — only identified by his first name, Thibault — operate the suit by reading the signals in his sensorimotor cortex, the area of the brain that controls movement.
While in a laboratory and assisted by a safety harness for balance, Thibault was able to walk again by controlling the exoskeleton with his mind. He trained with the researchers for two years to make the big moment possible.
“It was like [being the] first man on the Moon,” he told the BBC. “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.”
According to the outlet, Thibault was an optician before he fell while celebrating at a night club four years ago. The accident injured his spinal cord and left him fully paralyzed except for minor movement in his biceps and left wrist.
He enlisted in a trial at the University of Grenoble in France in 2017.
While this is not the first time researchers have attempted to use an exoskeleton to help people with physical disabilities, Professor Alim-Louis Benabid — President of the Clinatec Executive Board and Professor Emeritus from the University of Grenoble, France — says the university’s suit is less invasive than previous attempts.
“Ours’ is the first semi-invasive wireless brain-computer system designed for long term use to activate all four limbs,” he said in a press release. “Previous brain-computer studies have used more invasive recording devices implanted beneath the outermost membrane of the brain, where they eventually stop working. They have also been connected to wires, limited to creating movement in just one limb, or have focused on restoring movement to patients’ own muscles.”
“Our patient already considers his rapidly increasing prosthetic mobility to be rewarding, but his progress has not changed his clinical status,” he added.
In a video posted to The Lancet, Thibault is seen slowly walking through the laboratory and using his arms to play simple games. While the suit is still in the experimental phase, the leaps that have been made are promising for future development.
“Our findings could move us a step closer to helping tetraplegic patients to drive computers using brain signals alone,” explained Professor Stephan Chabardes, a neurosurgeon from the CHU of Grenoble-Alpes, France, in the press release. “Perhaps starting with driving wheelchairs using brain activity instead of joysticks and progressing to developing an exoskeleton for increased mobility.”