Paraplegics Control Robots With Thoughts

Each year, approximately 11,000 new spinal cord injuries occur, resulting in paraplegia or quadriplegia. Spinal cord injuries are most commonly caused by: motor vehicle crashes (37%), violence (28%), falls (21%), sports-related (6%), other (8%). Advances in science and technology are making it a little easier for victims of spinal cord injuries to be more independent.

A professor at a Swiss university recently unveiled a robot that can be controlled by the brainwaves of a paraplegic person wearing an electrode-fitted cap, news agency ATS reported. A paralyzed man at a hospital demonstrated the device, sending a mental command to a computer in his room, which transmitted it to another computer that moved a small robot 37 miles away. The system was developed by Jose Millan, a professor at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne who specializes in non-invasive interfaces between machines and the brain. The same technology can be used to drive a wheelchair, Millan said. “Once the movement has begun, the brain can relax, otherwise the person would soon be exhausted,” he said. But the technology has its limits, he added. The brain signals can be scrambled if too many people are gathered around a wheelchair, for example.

Besides making paraplegics mobile, neuroprosthetics could be used to help patients recover lost senses, researchers said. Professor Stephanie Lacour and her team are working on an “electric skin” for amputees, a glove fitted with tiny sensors that would send information directly to the user’s nervous system. Eventually, researchers say they hope to create mechanized prosthetics that are as mobile and sensitive as a natural hand, Lacour said. Other researchers at Lausanne are working on enabling paraplegics to walk again with electrodes implanted in their spinal cords. “The goal is that after a year of training with a robotic aide, the patient will be able to walk without a robot. The electrodes would stay implanted for life,” said Professor Gregoire Courtine.