Brainy Bodysuit Could Help Quadriplegics Walk

Scientists are one step closer to creating a bodysuit that could allow people paralyzed by spinal cord injuries to move, feel and regain their independence.

The international team of neuroscientists and engineers has created a system that allowed monkeys to move a virtual hand using only their brains, and then get sensory feedback from the hand to fine-tune their control.

“This is the first demonstration of a brain-machine-brain interface that establishes a direct, bidirectional link between a brain and a virtual body,” Miguel Nicolelis, co-director of the Duke Center for Neuroengineering and senior author of the study published in Nature said in a statement. “It’s almost like creating a new sensory channel through which the brain can resume processing information that cannot reach it anymore through the real body and peripheral nerves.”

The body’s nerves are like electrical wires. A spinal cord injury severs the wires that send movement signals from the brain to the muscles as well as those that send sensory signals, like touch and pain, from the skin up to the brain. So even though the brain and skin sensors are working properly, the signals are blocked. But brain-machine-brain interface technology could help quadriplegics bypass the circuit break to regain their mobility and their sense of touch.

“We hope that in the next few years this technology could help to restore a more autonomous life to many patients who are currently locked in without being able to move or experience any tactile sensation of the surrounding world,” Nicolelis said.

That tactile sensation is crucial for modifying movements depending on the environment, like adjusting a step on rough terrain or the grip on a fragile glass.

“If you want to reach and grasp a glass, visual feedback won’t help you,” Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, a neuroscientist at the University of Leicester, UK, who was not involved in the study told Nature. “It’s the sensory feedback that tells you if you have a good grip or if you are about to drop it.”

Restoring mobility and independence in quadriplegics using brain-machine-brain interface technology is the main goal of the Walk Again Project — an international consortium headquartered at the Duke Center for Neuroengineering. The team hopes to carry out its first public demonstration of the bodysuit during the opening game of the 2014 FIFA Soccer World Cup in Brazil.

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