Major Breakthrough: A Tetraplegic Can Walk!

By: Loren Elmann  |  November 21, 2019

By Loren Elmann, Staff Writer

Researchers from the University of Grenoble in France — in the biomedical research center, Clinatec, and the CEA research center, have recently enabled a tetraplegic patient to move all four of his limbs with a brain-controlled robotic suit. This breakthrough in biomedical research lasted two years and involved a patient named Thibault. By training an algorithm to understand his specific brain signals, he was able to control a virtual avatar. The algorithm derived from these recorded signals were then used to enable him to command a brain-controlled exoskeleton with his thoughts, and ultimately, he had the ability to walk for the first time in two years. This experiment may have paved the way for improving the quality of life for paralyzed patients.

To yield these results, researchers had a three-step process. They first implanted recording devices in either side of Thibault’s head. These devices spanned the sensorimotor cortex of his brain — the area between the brain and skin that controls a person’s motor functions and sensations. Once implanted, the recording devices’ electrode grids collected and transmitted the brain’s signals to a decoding algorithm that commanded a robotic exoskeleton to act per his brain’s desires. So while he commanded an avatar to walk or interact with objects in a virtual simulation, he taught the algorithm to understand his thoughts of walking and interacting with objects, which were then carried out by an exoskeleton. He then trained, using this exoskeleton, with the aid of a ceiling-mounted harness, to eventually walk, and reach for objects with his arms.

This study, which was recently published in the Lancet Neurology Journal, states that over the course of the study, Thibault covered a total of 476 feet with 480 steps using the avatar, video, and exoskeleton combined. “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,” he said

So what’s next? In a press release, Professor Stephan Chabardes, a neurosurgeon from Grenoble University Hospital in France and the author of the study, said, “Our findings could move us a step closer to helping tetraplegic patients to drive computers using brain signals alone, perhaps starting with driving wheelchairs using brain activity instead of joysticks and progressing to developing an exoskeleton for increased mobility.” 

In the next few stages, the researchers are aiming to create an exoskeleton for patients that will not require the assistance of the ceiling-mounted harness that aided in the training of Thibault. They hope to create an exoskeleton independent of outside harnesses that could be used for daily activities. This research gained so much traction that it has even inspired three more patients to participate in the study, hopefully lighting the way for further innovations aimed at easing the life of the injured. As Professor Benabid, who developed deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease said, “This is in [the] direction of giving a better quality of life.”

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