A mind-controlled exoskeleton helped a paralyzed man walk again

Christine Fisher
Contributing Writer

A paralyzed man regained the ability to walk with the help of a robotic exoskeleton that he controlled with his mind. Unlike other, more invasive mind-controlled robotics, this one used electrodes implanted above the brain's outer membrane, not in the brain itself. That could reduce the risk of infection and other obstacles that have limited the success of mind-controlled robotics.

As part of a study with the University of Grenoble Alpes in France, the patient, who goes by Thibault, agreed to have two five-centimeter discs of his skull replaced with brain sensors, each with 64 electrodes. The researchers mapped Thibault's brain to determine which areas become active when he thinks about walking or moving his arms and used those maps to train the system. Thibault first practice by imagining walking and moving an avatar on a computer screen. He was then strapped to the 65 kg exoskeleton suit and successfully used it to walk.

The system isn't perfect yet. It still requires overhead support to keep the user from falling, but because the electrodes are not implanted directly in the brain, they have a reduced risk of brain infection. Previous experiments, which placed the electrodes in the brain, stopped working when cells built up around the electrodes. Researchers don't expect that to happen with these, and Thibault's electrodes are still working after 27 months. With some fine tuning, the researchers say this system could improve patients' quality of life, and with shrinking tech like we've seen in other exosuits, it could eventually be less cumbersome.