Today (June 12), millions of football (aka soccer) fans across the globe will witness an inspiring scene during the opening ceremony for the FIFA World Cup games in Brazil. Wearing a custom-fit “exoskeleton” with a special helmet, a paralyzed person will walk onto the field and kick the ceremonial ball. To accomplish this futuristic feat, the kicker will drive the movement with her mind, and the bionic exoskeleton will do the rest.
The exoskeleton and its brain machine interface are being developed by a team of specialists, led by Miguel A.L. Nicolelis, M.D., Ph.D., of Duke University, a Brazil native, and neuroscientist who is part of the Walk Again Project.
"Football is a very big deal,” Nicolelis told CBS News. “The World Cup is the world's largest sports competition, the ultimate sharing opportunity. We proposed to the government that instead of a regular musical or typical opening ceremony that has been done in the past, we could surprise the world by doing a scientific demonstration instead."
How it works
In January 2013, eight research participants (six men, two women) began training with a BMI designed by Nicolelis, according to grantland.com. All of the participants had been paralyzed below the waist for at least a year. The patients’ spinal cords are injured but their brains are healthy. They can still imagine themselves walking, and with the aid of a BMI, lots of concentration, and extensive training, their minds can still generate the right message to propel the exoskeleton to walk.
According to Nicolelis, the mind treats the exoskeleton as an extension of the actual body. The technology is based on Nicolelis’ years of research on neuroplasticity, the principle that the brain can rewire itself to adapt to new circumstances and incorporate elements of the world around us. A special helmet, which has electrodes that connect the user’s brain to the exoskeleton is custom fit to the head.
To make the custom helmet, project engineers first 3D-scanned the patient’s head. Then, partners at Colorado State University used LulzBot TAZ 3D printers to create a functional 3D model out of the flexible, NinjaFlex filament. Three-dimensional printing allows the team to make and improve models constantly. It is a complex process but this now-affordable technology helps research scientists save time and money. The final product — a white, pliable, custom-fit liner — took only 58 hours and 38 minutes to print.
“A mind-controlled exoskeleton sounds like an excellent plotline for a sci-fi film,” comments Jack Krecek, president of Fenner Drives, makers of NinjaFlex 3D printer filament. “When in fact, it’s becoming an amazing reality for the millions of people who are paralyzed. We can’t dream big enough for the application of flexible filaments being used in today’s 3D-print technology, particularly for biomedical use.”
Three-dimensional printing continues to expand in the biomedical industry. There have been recent reports of its use in blood vessels, prosthesis and even in creation of a heart model to prepare the doctors for a serious heart surgery on a child.
“Aleph Objects is proud our LulzBot desktop 3D printers are a part of this exciting project. We believe the rapid global adoption of accessible open source 3D printers like ours will make many more initiatives like the Walk Again Project possible,” adds Harris Kenny, communications manager, Aleph Objects, makers of the LulzBot brand of 3D printers.