It is on the papers the world over, in the main scientific journals. It is feeding the hope of over 25 million people who depend on wheelchairs. And yes, it is on the right track: tests for the Walk Again project are performing better than expected.
“Results are much better than expected. We didn’t expect to be so far advanced from a clinical point of view, nor having such interesting results in neuroscience terms, the way we’ve had in the last few months”, said Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, who coordinates the project that will enable a paraplegic patient to take the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil first kick-off.
On Monday (28.04) afternoon, one of the eight paraplegic patients taking part of this stage of the project took the inaugural walk with the exoskeleton, taking eighteen steps and three kicks. According to Miguel Nicolelis, another two patients took similar routes. “Three Brazilian pioneers, who moved all of us with their courage and determination”, said the neuroscientist on his Facebook page.
The neurorobotics laboratory, set up in São Paulo, is in operation practically 24/7. Scientists from all over the world go from one room to the other, focusing on improving an innovative technology, which will hold its first demonstration at the World Cup opening match.
Video (with English and Spanish subtitles)
The technology has name and surname: Brasil Santos Dumont. That is how the two exoskeletons that arrived in São Paulo at the beginning of March are referred to by the team. One of them has been totally assembled and the other is in the final assembly stages.
The exoskeleton is a robot vest that incorporates the latest advances in robotics. By using the device, as by the project’s name, paraplegic patients may walk again. Patients control the machine using their brain. The messages sent by the brain, such as the wish to walk, move or stop, will be captured by the robot so that the movements may be generated. And as a result of having sensors on the sole, the exoskeleton will also provide patients with feelings from the exterior world.
“The exoskeleton is 1.78m tall, almost 1.80m. Its final weight has yet to be defined, as some tests still need to be run, but it should weigh around 60, 70 kilos. However, that is irrelevant because the patient will not feel the weight, the machine will be responsible for the patient's, as well as the exoskeleton's balance, while the patient control the beginning and ending of movements, as well as the kick, obviously. The sensors are on the sole and will deliver these signals to the person's arm, who will imagine their legs walking, moving and stamping on the ground through the feedback sent to their arms", explained Nicolelis.
Before seeing the exoskeleton, eight paraplegic patients that are taking part in this phase of the project had already experienced the feeling of standing up again. Indeed, several tests were run in the laboratory with a static robot vest.
This stage was essential for them to relearn how to walk, so that the patients’ brains would again incorporate the work done by the lower limbs. But it was when they saw the exoskeleton for the first time that patients were very moved, according to the project coordinator.
“Their first experience moved us all, it was a unique feeling. Before the project, none of them imaged that they would have this opportunity again in their lives. All patients have already put on the exoskeleton, tested it and were amazed. It’s more than an innovative machine, it’s beautiful and elegant. In fact, they said that they’d like the machine as is, without the covering layer that we had thought of initially, because they think it's more exciting to see the technology involved", said Nicolelis. Patients are being kept away from journalists.
The countdown to the World Cup has an effect on the expectations of more than players and fans. The first big demonstration of the Walk Again project will be conducted on 12 June at the Corinthians Arena in São Paulo, a little before the opening match between Brazil and Croatia. Wearing an exoskeleton, one of eight patients is going to get up from the wheelchair, walk around 25 metres onto the pitch and take the World Cup’s first kick-off.
“We’re refining the exoskeleton and patients are learning to walk with it, getting used to the nuances of this type of walking. It is as if you were acquiring a new body, as if you were learning to walk again, literally. It’s not a passive machine, there is interaction both ways and this has never been done. The demonstration at the World Cup is only the beginning of this interaction”, explained the neuroscientist.
The venue where the first kick-off will be taken is also being taken into consideration in the tests. A modern virtual environment set up in the laboratory reproduces the atmosphere of a full stadium, with similar visual and sound stimuli.
“All patients were able to carry out the mental activities they need to control the exoskeleton in this environment and thus, we're very relaxed about it. In addition, all of them are being followed by a group of psychologists”, said Miguel Nicolelis.
The neuroscientist is certain that everything will go as planned at the World Cup opening match at the Corinthians Arena and billions of people will watch live one of the biggest achievements by Brazilian and international science. A small detail: a Palmeiras supporter will give the world this gift at the home of their biggest rivals. “When the time comes, my Palmeiras hat will be ready, it's not a problem", he said.