CBBC Newsround: Mind-reading skeleton suit helps paralysed man to walk

Image Fonds De Dotation Clinatec  La Breche

Image Fonds De Dotation Clinatec La Breche

Aquadriplegic patient has walked again thanks to a brain-controlled robotic exoskeleton suit being tested in the lab, according to a team of researchers in France.

30-year-old Thibault said taking his first steps in the suit felt like being the "first man on the Moon".

Herculean effort: Thibault trained for months, using his brain signals to control a video game avatar in order to hone the skills required to operate exoskeleton, which was held up by a ceiling-mounted harness.

Doctors who conducted the trial cautioned that the device is years away from being publicly available but stressed that it had "the potential to improve patients' quality of life and autonomy". That was where I first encountered the idea that scientists might one day construct a robotic exoskeleton that could help a man to walk.

Thibault's exoskeleton suit is created to recognize brain signals that alert it to start and stop walking.

"Ours' is the first semi-invasive wireless brain-computer system designed for long term use to activate all four limbs", Alim-Louis Benabid, the executive board president of the biomedical research center Clinatec and a professor emeritus at the University of Grenoble in France, said in a statement announcing the findings.

Thibault, who fell 15m at a nightclub in 2015, had two implants put on the surface of the part of his brain that controls movement. These read his sensorimotor cortex that controls motor function.

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The exoskeleton, part of a trial by Clinatec and the University of Grenoble, works by recording and decoding brain signals. From there, it sent the movement commands to the exoskeleton to carry them out. Then, they began training the patient to move virtual limbs and videogame sprites, using deep learning AI to identify, learn and reinforce the brain activity the patient was using for each motion and command.

Experts involved in the research say it could potentially lead to brain-controlled wheelchairs for paralysed patients.

"This isn't about turning man into machine, but about responding to a medical problem", Benabid told AFP in another interview.

"We're talking about "repaired man", not "augmented man". I forgot what it is to stand, I forgot I was taller than a lot of people in the room", he said.

While the progress made by researchers and Thibault is a major advancement in robotics and neuroscience, Tom Shakespeare, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, informed Reuters that "proof of concept is a long way from usable clinical possibility".

"This is possible, even with our handicap".

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