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Computer Brain Control Helps Paraplegic Man Walk Again

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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A man paralysed in both legs has walked again after he used a computer to bypass his damaged spinal cord

Scientists in the United States have managed to help a paraplegic man walk again thanks to “computer brain control.”

The breakthrough could help in the development of new technology to help paraplegics walk again, as the University of California Irvine Brain Computer Interface Lab created a system whereby the patient can use their own legs, rather than an exoskeleton, to help them walk.

Brain Control

The experiment centred around paraplegic Adam Fritz, who lost the use of his legs in 2008 after a motorcycle accident. He was 21-years old at the time and he hit a table in the road after it had come off a pickup truck in front of him.

Rather than a mechanical exoskeleton, Fitz was wired up with electrodes, a special backpack, whilst wearing a special cap that reads his brain waves. His outfit communicated via bluetooth with a nearby computer.

In order for this experiment to work, Fritz apparently spend a long time “strength training” the muscles in his legs. He also spend many hours thinking of walking, according to a recent interview with the OCregister website.

Whilst he was thinking of walking, his brainwaves were recorded.

His thoughts were then decoded by a computer algorithm, which in turn directed his first step, bypassing his damaged spinal cord to fire the muscles in his legs.

Fritz was able to complete his 12-foot walk inside a UC Irvine research lab, although for safety reasons, he was placed in a harness during the experiment.

The experiment marked the first time a paraplegic actually walked using brain control.

Hard Work

“I think and then I walk. It was incredible,” Fritz reportedly said. “It gives you that hope for the future.”

The 29-year-old insurance claims adjuster had to train hard in order to get this far. He told how first the researchers made him learn how to walk in virtual reality. His task was to make a video game avatar walk across a computer screen, using nothing but his thoughts captured through an electrode-covered cap on his head.

“They sit you down in front of it and say, ‘Make it move,’” Fritz added. It apparently took weeks before he could make the avatar even twitch.

“When you’re sitting there for seven hours and you’re not getting it to work, you’re thinking, ‘Why the hell am I here?’ I thought it was going to be quick and easy, and it wasn’t,” Fritz was quoted as saying.

Fritz discovered that he had to remain calm, clear his mind and imagine that he was walking.

“It’s kind of hard to describe how to actually make it work,” he reportedly said. “You have to be able to concentrate in a certain way.”

Whilst the technology does sound promising, it seems that widespread use is still at least two decades away. For now, the next phase of the research project involves implanting electrodes into the brain itself and using cables to connect them to a miniaturised computer implanted in the chest like a pacemaker.

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