Brain-Controlled Exoskeleton Gives the First Kick at World Cup, But No One Knows.
Today Juliano Pinto, a young 29 year old paraplegic Brazilian stood up and gave the opening kick at the World Cup, but you wouldn't know because it wasn't broadcast on any major network during the opening celebration. The exposition was a demonstration of existing technology and a glimpse of what is to come from science. The mastermind behind the project is San Paulo’s very own professor Miguel Nicolelis who has devoted his life and career to decoding the complex signals of the brain. Unfortunately, Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull were the center of attention during the opening ceremonies. The multi-million dollar effort culminating years of research was not even shown on TV during the ceremony. I feel so bad for Dr. Nicolelis’s BMI team. It was like the wright flyer taking off for the first time with no one watching.
Professor Nicolelis, a great mind of our era, possesses both a PhD and a medical doctorate, and uses them both equally. Dr. Nicolelis has been probing the brain’s movement pathways for his entire career. Dr. Nicolelis has received a significant amount of push back from the scientific community for his top-down approach to neuroscience.
In science, this approach seems to work well. Systems are generally studied starting with the lowest known form of the system and built-up to form a model. A good example of this is the study of the atom. In order understand the atom in the early 19th century researchers begun to probe the sub-atomic particles that it was known to contain. Out of this work, a much deeper understanding of the atomic model was formed and modern innovations like nuclear power were developed.
The neuroscience community often takes a similar approach and studies the building blocks of neurons and synaptic connections that make up the brains “parts”. While this is an extremely important field, Dr. Nicolelis has rebelliously shown that the brain is different. This system could be modeled as a complex system in an “integrative approach”. By “reverse engineering” the brain, the outputs of whole neural populations are studied and a model is developed. The process works, and the more sample points of the population the better. Dr. Nicolelis has proven this on several occasions by interfacing monkeys to robotic arms using implantable electrodes.
The feat today was a demonstration of the technical ability gained in less than a decade of processing but now isn’t considered “the state of the art”. Generally, Dr. Nicolelis’s work uses implantable electrodes but regulatory hurdles kept young Juliano from receiving the implant. Instead, electrodes placed on the scalp were used to read the motor signals for movement. Unfortunately, this technique is like trying to pick out a single screaming voice in a sea of sports fans and thereby causes slow and choppy movement seen in the demonstration. If an implantable system was used the young man would have waltzed onto the field smoothly. Soon (likely in just a few years), many of the hurdles that restrict these implants will be cleared and nearly everyone with severe disabilities will walk again. This, is much more exciting than Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez.
See the Animated Gif of the kick at