Scientists from around the world are working to enable a young Brazilian paraplegic to kick off the opening game of the FIFA World Cup 2014. In a media briefing at the Open Media Centre on Saturday, 29 June, Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis (photo), who heads the project Andar de Novo (Walk Again), explained that this research, which is unique worldwide, will restore movement to people who have suffered brain lesions or neuromotor diseases.
The project makes this possible by using a brain signal-controlled exoskeleton (a type of mechanical suit) to integrate the brain with the machine in clinical motor rehabilitation. The work currently involves 170 researchers in several countries.
“Our ambition is for wheelchairs to become museum pieces. We cannot disregard the fact that there are always imponderables in science, but our research is well advanced and we are confident that we will soon be able to restore movement to people with neuromotor problems,” said Dr. Nicolelis.
He sees the World Cup as an opportunity to show the world another important side of Brazil. “The image of Brazilian science has gained prominence internationally in recent years. By achieving this goal at the opening match of the World Cup, we will show that Brazil is interested in and capable of scientific advancement as a tool for social inclusion,” he stated.
The project involves researchers from a range of areas, including neuroscience, robotics, electronic engineering, motor rehabilitation and computer science. In Brazil the “Walk Again” project is supported through the National Agency for Innovation (Finep), which is linked to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. It is also funded by the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience, based in Natal, a program founded by Dr. Nicolelis and where he currently serves as scientific director.
Under the “Walk Again” project, tests with animals demonstrated that electrical activity in the brain could be decoded into commands to move mechanical devices, in this case an exoskeleton. “It is now a question of fine-tuning between the decoding of brain electrical activity and aspects of motor coordination so that use of the exoskeleton apparatus functions efficiently,” Dr. Nicolelis explained.
The “Walk Again” project is now concentrated in Brazil with the arrival of the exoskeleton, collaboration among scientists, programming and testing of the apparatus, and physiotherapy for the people who are to test the exoskeleton’s prostheses.
“Experience with interconnecting brain and machine suggests that the brain incorporates the apparatus as if it were a body part, just as tennis players feel their racket as an extension of their arm,” Dr. Nicolelis noted.
Dr. Miguel Nicolelis is an award-winning neuroscientist. He has been Professor of Neurobiology and Co-Director of the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University for more than 20 years, and is the founder of the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neurosciences of Natal (IINN-ELS), in Macaíba, Rio Grande do Norte State, where he coordinates programming as the scientific director.