June 12, 2014
As the mother of a son whose main aim in life is to score the winning goal in any football tournament, I can only begin to imagine how the family of a paralysed child would feel if their son or daughter were to be given the chance to take the first kick at this years World Cup.
While this may sound like a fantasy, over the last few months a crack team of scientists led by Brazilian doctor Miguel Nicolelis have been working on achieving exactly this. At the World Cup opening ceremony in Sao Paulo and with the world watching, a paraplegic will leave behind their wheelchair and take to the pitch in a specially designed exoskeleton suit.
Can a robotic exoskeleton help the paralysed walk again?
The World Cup opening ceremony will be the first public demonstration of the new exoskeleton technology and offers exciting prospects for the future of paralysis victims.
Exoskeletons - meaning 'outer skeleton' - are designed to enable those with lower limb disabilities to walk upright without using crutches.
The exoskeleton consists of a robotic suit which transmits brain signals from a cap worn on the patient's head to a computer which is contained in a backpack. The computer then decodes the signals and sends these to the legs. These are then translated into commands for the exoskeleton to start moving. A battery in the backpack allows for around two hours' use as the robotic suit is powered by hydraulics.
"If all goes as planned" wrote Alejandra Martins for the BBC, "the robotic suit will spring to life in front of almost 70,000 spectators and a global audience of billions of people."
Implications for the Injured
Working in a serious injury team, I see first hand the effect a catastrophic injury has on people. The injured person's life, and the lives of their family is rarely the same again and any medical technology that can provide some form of improvement to their quality of life should be encouraged.
The implications of the exoskeleton technology are vast. While Neuroprosthetics are beginning to show promise for people hampered by incapacitated or missing limbs, this technology will provide hope and possible self-reliance to stroke victims, car crash survivors, injured soldiers and many others.
Whilst the exoskeleton is still currently at the development stage, the hope is that with such a high profile launch further funding can be unlocked to advance the process of developing the technology for wider use.
"We want to galvanise people's imaginations" says Miguel Nicolelis, the Brazilian neuroscientist at Duke University who is leading the Walk Again Project's efforts to create the robotic suit. "With enough political will and investment, we could make wheelchairs obsolete".
Nicolesis has spent years of research developing the principle that the brain can rewire itself to adapt to new circumstances. The robotic suit works on the basis that the mind will treat the exoskeleton as an extension of the physical body.
Innovation on an International Stage
What better place is there to demonstrate the possibilities of the new technology than the World Cup? The finer details are not confirmed as yet but the speculation is that someone will be chosen from a group of around ten paraplegic men and women to perform the 'miracle' of walking and kicking the football. What a wonderful opportunity to be part of a historic step forward in the progression of innovative science.
I would lay odds on there being more than a few tears amongst the spectators.