A man has walked again after years of paralysis thanks to scientists at the University of California, Irvine. By harnessing his own brain power, he has learnt how to walk again, five years after suffering a spinal cord injury. This is an extremely exciting breakthrough for all concerned as it’s the first time that someone with paraplegia has been able to walk without relying on manually controlled robotic limbs.
Using an electroencephalogram based system, which sends electrical signals from the brain to electrodes placed around the knees, the unnamed man has been able to walk along a 3.66m course. One of the lead researchers, Dr. An Do explained that this is possible due to the fact that the brain can still generate strong electrodes even after years of paralysis, and that by harnessing these brain waves, it’s possible to enable basic walking. Furthermore, this is achievable even after a complete spinal cord injury and, so far, this non-invasive method of stimulating the muscles of the legs has proved to be a promising improvement on the current brain controlled systems that rely on a robotic exoskeleton to support movement.
Prior to actually walking, the participant had to train his brain in order to reactivate its ability to control the movements. By learning how to control an avatar in a virtual reality environment via an EEG cap, he began his journey to walking. Further preparation included physical training to strengthen his leg muscles, plus several walks where he was suspended 5cm above the ground so that he could practice walking without having to support his own weight. Over time, this progressed to walks on the ground wearing a support system, which allowed him to gain more control without the danger of falling.
While this study only involved a single participant, it does give hope that the same method can be used to help more people with paraplegia to walk. Furthermore, the team are planning to explore using brain implants in order to control the movements, which will not only allow a greater level of control, but which could ultimately enable the user to feel their legs through the delivery of sensations back to their brain.
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