We are learning machines. The brain is plastic, and the connections between brain and motor nerves are not hard-wired but learned. This makes it possible for people whose bodies are paralyzed to be connected to computer-driven motors driving bands and struts around their arms and legs, and for them to learn what brain actions control what motor actions.
During the 2014 FIFA World Cup opening ceremony, a young Brazilian man, paralyzed from the chest down, delivered the opening kickoff. He used a brain-machine interface, allowing him to control the movements of a lower-limb robotic exoskeleton.
This unprecedented scientific demonstration was the work of the Walk Again Project (WAP), a nonprofit, international research consortium that includes Alan Rudolph, vice president for research at Colorado State University, who is also an adjunct faculty member at Duke University’s Center for Neuroengineering.
Barely two years after the demonstration, the WAP has released its first clinical report, published Aug. 11 in Scientific Reports. They report that a group of patients who trained throughout 2014 with the WAP’s brain-controlled system, including a motorized exoskeleton, have regained the ability to voluntarily move their leg muscles and to feel touch and pain in their paralyzed limbs. This, despite being originally diagnosed as having a clinically complete spinal cord injury – in some cases more than a decade earlier.