As society once again debates the merits of artificial intelligence, there’s still plenty to discover about how human intelligence can power robotics. For a team of French researchers, finding a way to use brain signals to aid paraplegics has been a decades-long process, culminating in a breakthrough case study published in late 2019. The subject of the experiment, a 28-year-old paraplegic man referred to as Thibault, lost the use of all four limbs after a spinal cord injury from a fall. Researchers sought to create an algorithm from the commands in Thibault’s brain that they could use to program the exoskeleton.
According to The Lancet Neurology, where the pioneering study was published, the resulting program successfully matched Thibault’s brain activity with the bionic exoskeleton by an astounding 71 percent. According to The Guardian, though Thibault cannot take his exoskeleton home, he is encouraged by the advances it has helped him make. “When you are in my position, when you can’t do anything with your body … I wanted to do something with my brain. I can’t go home tomorrow in my exoskeleton but I’ve got to a point where I can walk. I walk when I want and I stop when I want.”
Researchers have been working on using brain impulses to manipulate inanimate objects for many years. However, most brain-robot pairings have involved invasive procedures that may stop working over time. According to researcher Professor Alim-Louis Benabid, who serves as Board President of Clinatec, the biomedical research center hosting the study, “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.”
Other experiments have tried to replicate the data the human brain generates when it directs the limbs, but this approach cannot account for the personality inherent in each individual brain. One of the major achievements of the Thibault study is that it used months of recorded activity from the subject’s own brain as he manipulated a virtual avatar in a VR space. By recording and observing months of data from Thibault’s own brain, scientists could better predict the directives the brain would give in a particular situation. At the same time, researchers used the data to help Thibault train his own brain to pair better with the capabilities of robotics. While researchers caution that the road to personalized walking suits is a long one, they are optimistic about the results the study has yielded.
While researchers have made great strides in both mobility aids, such as smart wheelchairs and prosthetics, like bionic limbs, the goal of all in the medical robotics field is to help individuals achieve as much independence as possible. On The Lancet’s Facebook page one commenter mentioned the late actor Christopher Reeve, highlighting how far technology has come in the almost 25 years since Reeve’s spinal cord injury.
Fusing nerve receptors in a patient’s own limbs to prosthetic receptors has shown promise, a science which has been applied to arms and hands most successfully. Also, 3-D printing, according to The Amputee Coalition, has helped substantially cut down on the cost of prosthetics. Though 3-D printed prosthetics are not as durable, The Amputee Coalition points out that they are a more sensible solution for children who are still growing and have to change their prosthetics several times over the course of childhood.
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