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“I think and then I walk”: UCI experiment marks the first time a paraplegic walks by brain control.
When the spinal cord is damaged and can no longer relay brain signals used for walking, researchers can now manipulate those brain signals, bypass the damaged spinal cord and deliver commands directly to the muscles in the leg, enabling a paraplegic to walk again.
Adam Fritz was involved in a motorcycle crash which paralysed his legs; he never stopped thinking he would walk again.
In a first of its kind experiment, new technology meant Fritz’s brain waves enabled him to walk a 12 foot course inside a research lab.
Fritz had to spend countless hours thinking about walking so that his brain waves could be recorded and then decoded by a computer algorithm, which in turn directed his first step, bypassing his damaged spinal cord to fire the muscles in his legs.
“I think and then I walk” Fritz said.
This was the first time a paraplegic has walked through brain control, however, researchers have said the possibility of widespread use of the technology is still at least two decades away.
Before Fritz could walk again, he had to learn how to walk in virtual reality. He had to make a video game avatar walk across a computer screen, using only his thoughts.
A computer programme told him when to think about walking and when to think about stopping. The data collected would be labelled for each category so that the algorithm could learn to decode his intent.
Nenadic, a lead researcher, said that another important finding from the study is that the brain patterns are preserved even after an injury – “if someone has been living with paralysis for six years, you would expect the brain area that controls his legs isn’t doing much. We were able to show that these areas are able to be re-awoken”.
The next phase of research will involve implanting electrodes into the brain and using cables to connect them to a miniaturised computer implanted in the chest, like a pacemaker.
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