A new rehabilitation approach has enabled eight paraplegic patients to regain feeling and movement in their legs.
The high-tech training program uses virtual reality and feedback from robotic exoskeletons to rewire brain circuits. It has already allowed people to overcome complete paralysis of the lower limbs and could one day help others move around independently.
This breakthrough comes from the Walk Again project, which originally aimed to find better ways for paraplegics to control prosthetic. Surprisingly, the training method also seems to reactivate the nerves controlling the lower limbs.
“We thought this would be extremely useful to investigate the brain, and to eventually produce some kind of new assertive technology to restore mobility to patients using artificial prosthetic devices,” says Professor Miguel Nicolelis, the Duke University neuroscientist who leads the project. “We never imagined that this could trigger any kind of clinical or neurological recovery.”
After studying how animals such as monkeys can be trained to control artificial limbs with their mind, Nicolelis organized an international collaboration between different specialists — everyone from robotics to rehab experts — to create “brain-machine interfaces” for medical applications in humans.
The research led to a demonstration at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where a paraplegic man in an exoskeleton walked onto a football field to kick-off the opening ceremony. “This was the largest neuroscience’s project ever funded by the Brazilian government,” says Nicolelis.