By Sean Jackson
“It was like [being the] first man on the moon.” said Thiabault, a 30-year-old man who was paralyzed after an accident where he fell close to fifty feet while in a nightclub, “I did not walk for two years.”
Thiabault, who is keeping his last name anonymous for privacy, was able to walk for the first time using a brain-controlled exoskeleton, according to french researchers who reported their findings in The Lancet Neurology Journal last Thursday. While the exoskeleton is less than perfect in terms of mobility, it allows for what was thought to be impossible-- giving Thiabault the ability to walk within the lab.
Thiabault’s injuries left him paralyzed and in the hospital for two long years, but in 2017 he began taking part in a trial with Clinatec in conjunction with the University of Grenoble. The trial included receiving brain implants that allow him to control a virtual avatar in a computer game, and then move up to walking in a suit.
The two wireless sensors on the brain, which are placed on areas responsible for movement control, record electrical impulses and send commands to the machine. The implants cover the parts of the brain that control movement with sixty-four electrodes. The use of a video game avatar allowed Thiabault to orient himself, maneuver limbs, and change directions.
To begin walking, Thiabault uses his brain to tell the exoskeleton to ‘start’ and ‘stop’, which it responds to in a methodical and machine-like manner. Researchers hope that with time the technology will advance and movements will become more fluid and Thiabault will become more accustomed to using the suit. The 140-pound suit is connected to a ceiling-mounted harness, so it does not give full autonomy to the user yet.
Professor Alim-Louis Benabid, president of the Clinatec executive board told the BBC, “This is far from autonomous walking. He does not have the quick and precise movements not to fall.”
While the use of the suit does not grant full autonomy, the research does suggest this is a big step in the right direction, granting eight more degrees of freedom that the patient would not have had otherwise.
The research paper published in The Lancet Neurology Journal outlines the findings, stating, “Between June 12, 2017, and July 21, 2019, the patient cortically controlled a programme that simulated walking and made bimanual, multi-joint, upper limb movements with eight degress of freedom during various reach-and-touch tasks and wrist rotations, using a virtual avatar at home...or and exoskeleton in a laboratory. Compared with microelectrodes, epidural ECoG [electrocorticographic] is semi-invasive and has similar efficiency.”
While the process of using the suit may be difficult currently, Thibault still feels as though it is a success, “I didn’t walk for two years. I forgot what it is to stand, I forgot I was taller than a lot of people in the room. It was very difficult because it is a combination of multiple muscles and movements. This is the most impressive thing I do with the exoskeleton.”