Tech Innovation

Virtual Reality Emboldens Paraplegics To Walk Again

Gerard Ward Writer

Paraplegics are tapping on virtual reality to “retrain their brains” to gain mobility in their legs once again.

At the opening ceremony of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, 29-year-old Juliano Pinto stood on the Corinthians Arena in front of 75,000 people and kicked a soccer ball. But what made this so important was that Juliano was actually paralysed from the chest down.

Pinto had delivered this kick using the power of his mind.

“We had one shot, and they gave us 30 seconds,” said Duke University neuroscientist Dr Miguel Nicolelis. “He was screaming with excitement about the contact of the ball, not the movement itself.”

Nicolelis and his team at international non-profit collaboration Walk Again Project have been working on brain-machine interfaces to improve the lives of those with spinal cord injuries. What started off as an attempt to help paraplegics gain some mobility of their lower limbs had become much bigger. Patients had begun to discover they were regaining sensitivity, vibration and even the fine touch in their legs.

Teaching the Mind to Make the Connection Again

According to a recent paper released by the group, Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets and haptic feedback sensors were first attached to the bodies of patients. These patients were trained to move a virtual soccer player avatar’s legs through pure thought. The computer reads the patient’s brain waves via a skullcap with electrodes, decoding these brain waves into actions. The haptic feedback then gives the illusion they are moving.

VR is used to train patients to move a virtual soccer player avatar’s legs through pure thought.
VR is used to train patients to move a virtual soccer player avatar’s legs through pure thought.

“The VR system seems to have retrained the brain to the concept of having legs, and more than that, having legs that can move, even though they’ve been paralysed all of these years,” Nicolelis said. “Maybe it’s not just an assistive technology but also a kind of therapy.”

The training started from a seated position, progressed to standing up, then removing the VR headset while standing into a zero-G harness, before eventually being fitted into an exoskeleton.

Over the course of 28 months since the study began, all eight patients were upgraded as partial paraplegia – something that has never happened at such a scale before. Some had been fully paraplegic for as long as 13 years. “They could know when they needed to go to the bathroom now, they could control the bladder much better, their cardiovascular function was better,” Nicolelis said.

He recalled a time when one of his patients, Bruno, took his first steps in controlling the exoskeleton on his own – after nine years of not walking. “I [was] broadcasting these images to scientists all over the world who were part of the team – and these are hard-core roboticists, computer scientists, neuroscientists – and there was not a single dry eye doing that walk. The guy was laughing, and saying ‘I feel wonderful’. He never imagined he would walk again in his life.”

Stent Implant in Brain to Pick Up Complex Brain Waves

While there is still plenty more to go in giving paraplegics more control of their legs, what work is being done for those with various forms of quadriplegia? Quadriplegia is a condition where paralysis occurs to the loss of mobility in all four limbs and the torso.

Dr Thomas James Oxley, head of University of Melbourne’s Vascular Bionics Laboratory, has been working on creating the Stentrode – a miniscule mesh of electrodes that sits inside the motor cortex of the brain.

The Stentrode is inserted into a blood vessel to record the brainwave activity, in order to control an exoskeleton through thought.
The Stentrode is inserted into a blood vessel to record the brainwave activity, in order to control an exoskeleton through thought.

A stent connected to a small wireless transmitter that sits outside the chest of the patient is implanted into the patient’s brain. Through this stent, the patient is able to transmit thoughts via a computer that would control an exoskeleton.

“The processing power of these systems does not require huge computing power,” Oxley said. Human trials for the Stentrode are expected to begin by 2017.

Mapping out a person’s brain waves like this takes time and training, as every person’s mind is different. “What we’re doing is building an electronic language that these patients to interface with any number of devices,” Oxley said. “For someone with a quadriplegic injury, even being able to manipulate a computer screen cursor or a keyboard from direct thinking gives them an opportunity to do a number of things.”

Given the complex nature of our bodies, it will take some time before those suffering from spinal cord injuries can gain some mobility back – but with interest quickly forming around the world from scientists and rehabilitation centres, these techniques could come sooner than later.

Hero Image: A patient is trying to control an exoskeleton with brain waves.

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