As the world watched, the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazil was officially kicked off last week by a 29-year old Brazilian named Juliano Pinto. Nothing unusual about that, until you consider that Pinto is a paraplegic and made the ceremonial kick-off through the use of an exoskeleton controlled by brain waves transmitted through a brain-machine interface (BMI). Pinto’s robotic suit was developed as part of Duke University’s Walk Again Project, led by Brazilian neuroscientist and Duke University faculty member Miguel Nicolelis and his team of over 150 scientists and researchers, representing 25 countries.

While exoskeletons are nothing new, Walk Again Project researchers told Bloomberg that Pinto’s robotic suit, called the BRA-Santos Dumont, is the first to use an artificial skin made of flexible printed circuit boards with sensors in the limbs to create vibrating feedback in response to contact. That vibration, in turn, produces the feeling of walking while also generating feedback on force, impact and temperature, which is presented to the wearer via visual display.

“The patient imagines that he wants to move, to walk. This is detected by sensors and sent to a computer which interprets this information and sends info to the exoskeleton,” Nicolelis told the Washington Post. “It allows the patient to control movements on the lower limbs, that’s the first innovation. The second is the exoskeleton generates these movements.”

“When the patient has trained for a few days, the sensation is that their legs are moving, that they are moving their paralyzed body, rather than being carried by a robot,” he added. Each of the patients Nicolelis worked with in the project had the use of their legs before the accident, and reported that during experiments they could “feel” their limbs moving.

Though Pinto’s kick was just the first small step in helping paraplegics walk again, it represents a giant leap toward the Walk Again Project’s ultimate goal of making wheelchairs obsolete.

Image credit: Walk Again Project

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