Aug. 9 - Researchers in Europe are developing a mind-controlled exoskeleton that will allow people with paralysis to walk. The technology is in its infancy but in five years could begin to replace wheelchairs for people with severe spinal injuries. Matthew Stock reports.
It's called Mindwalker - the world's first robotic exoskeleton, designed to operate with the power of thought. It's a futuristic concept being developed by a pan-European team of scientists. They say the device could eventually offer paralysed and locked-in people a viable alternative to the wheelchair. The first prototype was designed to hold a person's body upright and move their legs when instructed by a computer. But the researchers want to take the technology a big step further. Neurophysiologist Guy Cheron at the University of Brussels is leading an experiment to allow operating instructions to come directly from the user's brain. (SOUNDBITE) (French) NEUROPHYSIOLOGIST AND RESEARCHER GUY CHERON, SAYING: "We will use a cap that measures electrical activity from the surface of the scalp. Through calculation we will detect the regions that are involved in the control of walk. We will only record signals emitted from the brain region that commands walking. This is the first step. Then, we will train the patient to take control of his brain's signals." Here, a researcher is training his brain to control the movement of a small robot. An EEG cap measures electrical activity on the scalp. An algorithm then translates this brain activity into instructions which tell the exoskeleton to move. . The scientists are also working on a pair of glasses that can read a wearer's eye movement to control the device. Doctor Marco Molinari is in charge of clinical trials of the device in Rome. He says the Mindwalker's psychological impact on patients could be dramatic. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DOCTOR MARCO MOLINARI SAYING: "The capacity of changing our view of the world, or better, the view of our patients of the world, looking not anymore by always sitting, but by standing. The emotional of someone going around walking, instead of going around sitting, is quite important." Molinari and his colleagues will now test their latest model in real-world situations, such as in the home and out shopping. They aim to have a fully-functional device ready for market within five years.