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Brain-Computer Interface Enables Paralyzed Man To Walk in University of California, Irvine Study

Proof-of-concept research shows possibilities for mind-controlled technology.

Novel brain-computer interface technology created by University of California, Irvine researchers has allowed a man with paraplegia to walk for a short distance.

In the preliminary proof-of-concept study, led by University of California, Irvine (UCI) biomedical engineer Zoran Nenadic, Ph.D., and neurologist An Do, M.D., a person with complete paralysis in both legs due to spinal cord injury was able – for the first time – to take steps without relying on manually controlled robotic limbs.

The male participant, whose legs had been paralyzed for five years, walked along a 12-foot course using an electroencephalogram-based system that lets the brain bypass the spinal cord to send messages to the legs. It takes electrical signals from the subject’s brain, processes them through a computer algorithm and fires them off to electrodes placed around the knees that trigger movement in the leg muscles.

Study results appear in the open-access Journal of NeuroEngineering & Rehabilitation. A video is available here.

“Even after years of paralysis, the brain can still generate robust brain waves that can be harnessed to enable basic walking,” said Dr. Nenadic, an associate professor of biomedical engineering. “We showed that you can restore intuitive, brain-controlled walking after a complete spinal cord injury. This noninvasive system for leg muscle stimulation is a promising method and is an advance of our current brain-controlled systems that use virtual reality or a robotic exoskeleton.”

Edelle Field-Fote, PT, Ph.D., director of spinal cord injury research at Shepherd Center in Atlanta said this feasibility study is an excellent step in right direction. “It demonstrates the brain can learn to trigger stimulation devices that can assist with walking,” she explained.

“Some of the hurdles that will need to be overcome to make this technology useful for real-world walking are the slow speed of activation and the need for body-weight support. Using the brain-computer interface, 4 seconds were required to activate each step. At a typical speed, a non-disabled person takes one step every 1.5 seconds,” Dr. Field-Fote said. “In addition, it was necessary to provide support for more than half of the subject’s body weight. Future research will likely address these issues. In addition, while the authors of the study report that the non-invasive system used to acquire the brain signals was very cumbersome, future studies will surely investigate surgically implanted systems.”

More information on the UCI study is available here.

More information on spinal cord injury research at Shepherd Center is available here.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.