June 12th marks the start of the biggest sporting event of the year, the Men’s World Cup of Soccer. This year, the month long competition will be hosted in Brazil, and will be watched by close to one billion people worldwide. That equates to just about 14% of the entire world’s population. It’s a huge event for sports fans, however this year it may be even bigger for the medical and technology communities.
At the start of the month-long event, a technological feat, which will likely send shivers down viewers spines, will take place. If all goes as planned, a paraplegic, unable to walk, and lacking any sensation within their lower extremities, will stand up, walk over to a soccer ball and kick it, controlling their actions using their own mind. All this will be possible with the help of a bionic exoskeleton, custom made with 3D printed parts, and controlled via a sophisticated brain–computer interface.
The initiative, which is part of the Walk Again Project, has been making huge strides these last few weeks. The Walk Again Project is a nonprofit, international collaboration between the Technical University of Munich, the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience, The University of Kentucky, The University of California, Davis, and Regis Kopper of The Duke immersive Virtual Environment. The project is the brainchild of neuroscientist Dr. Miguel A.L. Nicolelis.
The exoskeleton works by allowing an individual to control the movement of metal leg braces, which are part of an entire suit controlled by the patient. By simply thinking about walking, they can do just that. The user will have a custom helmet with sensors over specific areas of the skull, so that the machine can receive key signals for movement. The helmet is easily the most important part of the entire exoskeleton, as it is literally its brains. Because of the precise location needed for the numerous sensors within it, researchers turned to Colorado State University’s Idea-2-Product 3D printing laboratory for help in creating the inner lining of the helmet, insuring that it stays secure on the users head, while placing sensors in the exact location needed. Below is a short clip showing how the team at CSU managed to 3D print the parts needed:
Dr. Nicolelis, from Brazil himself, feels like this is the perfect opportunity to bring this amazing technological innovation to the public, stating, “Sports can be a huge avenue to reach out to people that would never actually pay attention to science news,” he said. “I always wanted to show kids in Brazil how important science can be for society.”
A few opponents to the initiative have expressed concern that such a public display of this technology could lead to the irrational excitement of the 25 million paralyzed individuals on this planet. It will likely be many years before this technology is capable enough to actually be distributed to those in need. I personally believe that this is an amazing way to bring attention to a field of medicine which otherwise may not have gotten the recognition it deserves. What’s wrong with giving 25 million people, confined to wheelchairs, the glimmer of a brighter future? Let’s hear your opinions at the bionic Exoskeleton forum thread at 3DPB.com. Below you will find a video created by the ‘Walk Again Project’.
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