Another French Revolution is underway and no, this not violent at all! In October 2019 French scientists came up with a solution that would allow paralyzed people to regain control of their brain.
Even though it is “far from autonomous walking”, as notified by Professor Alim-Louis Benabid who is the president of the Clinatec executive board, this breakthrough has opened avenues for further research in enabling paralyzed minds.
Thibault, who is currently 30-years-old, volunteered to be part of the research. He was paralyzed after he sustained an injury to his spinal cord four years back due to falling in a nightclub.
After trying the suit, he felt like he was the “first man on the Moon”. “I didn't walk or two years. I forgot what it is to stand, I forgot I was taller than a lot of people in the room”, he stated enthusiastically.
Thibault spent two years in the hospital before he was approached for the research. In 2017, he gave his approval and went through two surgeries for the implantation of the devices that could monitor his brain signals.
Source: The Independent
The 65 kg exoskeleton body suit operates when multiple electrons from the implanted devices send signals to a nearby computer which then decodes the neuron transmissions and turns them into movements through the suit.
So when Thibault thinks “walk”, the signals are translated by the computer, and the bodysuit moves the legs forward. He had to practice the movements through video game avatars since it requires a level of concentration to control the activities of the brain.
Source: The Scientist Magazine
The movement of arms proved to be a lot more difficult because it involves a series of complex muscles that prompt the actions and when asked to touch objects and rotate his wrists, the success rate was recorded to be 71%.
The exoskeleton is still attached to the ceiling of the lab because it cannot yet support the movements on its own, which also means that the suit is restricted to the limits of the laboratory. Professor Benabid stated, “We have solved the problem and shown the principle is correct” and it is indeed “the direction of giving better quality of life”.
What we are considering a breakthrough is just the tip of the iceberg, according to French scientists. The 32 electrodes that are being used to decode the signals into movements have a limited period of 350 milliseconds before the device goes out of control.
This means that there is still a need for precision, and if all 64 electrodes present in the implant can assist the actions, the movements would be faster and more accurate.
The research is the first of its kind, but like every scientific breakthrough, there is a risk of misuse. Scientists are experimenting with the exoskeletons to improve the abilities of already functioning humans, and there are speculations of the technology being designed for military use.
However, Professors Benabid dismissed the doubts, saying “Our job is to repair the injured patients who have lost function. We are absolutely not going in the direction of these extreme and stupid applications”.
Source: Yahoo News
The experts believe that even though the availability of technology for medical use is in the future, the “cost-constraints mean that hi-tech options are never going to be available to most people in the world with spinal cord injury”.
And Professor Tom Shakespeare who made this statement is not wrong at all. Today, the accessibility of modern medical devices like wheelchairs are only accessible to 15% of disabled people.
Still, the exoskeleton is a huge breakthrough, and we might see something more advanced and efficient soon.