Mind-Controlled Exoskeleton Could Help Paralyzed People Walk

By Nick Venable | Updated

This article is more than 2 years old

For people with forms of lower body paralysis, there’s no end in sight for wheelchairs being the optimal way of getting around. But in a few years, the MindWalker Project could be a suitable, if not commonplace, alternative.

While it’s not a way to reverse or treat the paralysis itself, the MindWalker is a full-body exoskeleton that could one day allow those with lower-limb paralysis to walk around using only the power of their minds. It’s nearing the end of a three-year development funded by the European Commission, and over the past eight weeks, five people were able to take part in a clinical trial. The E.C. will provide their review once the trial reaches completion this week.

The system is not ideal just yet, but it works as such: the user wears an EEG cap that measures electrical activity across the scalp, and a pair of special glasses with lenses attached to diodes that flicker at different frequencies. If the person looks to the left, the exoskeleton walks — well, lurches forward would be a better description — and looking to the right causes the machine to stop. The initial problem with this method is that the noise from the machine itself messes with the EEG signal, but the researchers figured out how to get around that problem.

The below video is of Antonio Melillo, whose spinal cord was severed in a car accident two years ago. His time with the MindWalker came before the noise fix, and he’s using a form of the machine that has sensors above each side of his buttocks. Leaning his upper body one way causes the opposite leg to move forward, and vice versa.

“It’s great, such an amazing sensation,” Melillo said. “Not just walking but even being able to stand upright…It’s great finally being able to look people in the eye.”

Goals for the future involve smoothing out the limb movement and possibly disguising the exoskeleton inside pants. The glasses will soon be a thing of the past, as a team at the Free University of Brussels identified which part of the brain corresponds with walking, and the team is able to distinguish between fast and slow walking. This direct line to walking will be able to help even those people most locked-in and unable to move.

Now let’s just hope Elysium causes everyone to embrace exoskeletons and this amazing advancement can go widespread.