Robotic Exoskeleton May Soon Return Movement to Those Paralyzed

By Rebecca Jones

While great strides have been made in the creation of bionic artificial limbs, up until now the chain of information has only flowed in one direction. Scientists have had enormous success with brain to computer communication but have been unable for the computer to return feedback. That is until now. Researchers at Duke University have found a way for monkeys to “feel” virtual objects using only their brains essentially closing the brain body feedback loop. This breakthrough could be applied to help people suffering paralysis not only to move prosthetic limbs but also experience tactile sensations in a natural real-time way.

“Someday in the near future, quadriplegic patients will take advantage of this technology not only to move their arms and hands and to walk again, but also to sense the texture of objects placed in their hands, or experience the nuances of the terrain on which they stroll with the help of a wearable robotic exoskeleton,” said the studies leader, Dr. Miguel Nicolelis.

To conduct their study researches worked with two female rhesus monkeys named Mango and Nectarine, implanting two sets of electrodes into each of the animal’s brains, one set in the part of the brain that controls movement and the other set in the part of the brain that processes the sense of touch. This system allowed researchers to bypass the body’s network of nerve endings and send the sense of touch directly to the monkey’s brains.

During the trial the monkeys were able to move a virtual arm via the electrodes in the motor cortex and then receive information about the texture of the object they were touching via the electrodes in the somatosensory cortex. Using only their brains the animals were able to select an object that felt different amongst a set of identical objects based only on the sensory input they were receiving.

The hope is that this breakthrough will allow for the creation of a robotic exoskeleton that can be controlled with the brain. Not only would it return mobility to those suffering from paralysis but allow them to reconnect to the world around them through the sense of touch. Nicolelis, a Brazilian native himself, hopes to unveil his “prosthetic exoskeleton, in time for the opening kick-off of the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament in Brazil and while that may be an ambitious goal this latest advancement makes it look like a genuine possibility.