March 8th, 2013
10:57 AM ET

Making mind-controlled exoskeletons a reality

Miguel Nicolelis is a professor of neurobiology at Duke University. For more on Nicolelis and his work, watch "The Next List" this Sunday at 2:30 pm ET on CNN.

Dr. Miguel Nicolelis: “In our lifetime, we will see a paralyzed person walking the streets of New York or Sao Paulo.”

Who he is: Nicolelis is a neuroscientist and pioneer in the brain-machine interface, a technology that allows people and animals to interact with computers and other artificial devices using nothing but their thoughts. It may sound like a scene out of "2001: A Space Odyssey," but it’s happening today in the Nicolelis Lab at Duke University’s Center for Neuroengineering. That’s where primates spend hours each day playing video games just by thinking about them.

Why he matters: By decoding the electrical signals of the brain, then sending them to artificial devices, Nicolelis has blazed a trail in an emerging field called neuro prosthetics.   His goal: to help paralyzed people walk again. In just 18 months, he plans to “shock the world” by unveiling his mind-controlled exoskeleton - a sort of “wearable robot” - at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  There, with hundreds of millions of soccer fans looking on, a paralyzed teenager will don the exoskeleton to literally kick off the opening ceremony and, Nicolelis hopes, teach the world that science knows no bounds.

Nicolelis is not the only neuroscientist to experiment with mind-controlled prosthetics. But he insists his brain-machine interface can engage far more brain cells,  or neurons, than others have even attempted. The result is a more finely tuned prosthetic, one that sends motor commands while simultaneously receiving sensory information: touch, for example, and temperature. These are the signals that help us make sense of our world.

For that teenager at the World Cup, it means she’ll not only walk across the soccer pitch, she’ll feel every step she takes.

Why you might know him:  Nicolelis recently made headlines around the world with his groundbreaking study on brain-to-brain communication. Using implants in the brains of rats, researchers linked several pairs electronically, enabling them to communicate directly to solve simple behavioral puzzles. As the ultimate test of their system, researchers brain-linked two animals thousands of miles apart - one at Duke University and one at Nicolelis’s neuroscience research center in Natal, Brazil. The hope is that scientists can one day link multiple brains to form what the researchers call the first "organic computer," which could allow sharing of motor and sensory information among groups of animals.

Nicolelis’s philosophy: “The biggest life adventure you can have in my opinion is to keep seeking this truth that you know deep inside that you’re never go to get, but it’s the journey that matters. It never ends.”

Something you might not know about him:  Nicolelis is a native of Brazil (and a true soccer fanatic). As a boy in Sao Paulo, he was very close to his grandmother and credits her with instilling in him the belief he could do anything he set his mind to. Inspired by the Apollo 11 moon landing, he first dreamed of becoming a scientist to explore space. He’s an avid sci-fi fan - and Trekkie - even today, though his studies eventually led him to neuroscience.

Now Nicolelis is passing on his passion for science to some of Brazil’s most disenfranchised kids. In a private-public partnership with the Brazilian government, he’s created the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal (ELS-IINN), a research facility he founded in Natal, Brazil. He also started two after-school science programs for area students and a women’s health clinic.

The IINN is a model for a string of “science cities” Nicolelis hopes to see built across Brazil’s poorest regions. The idea is to use science as an agent of change, delivering a web of social and educational programs that intimately connect the communities with each institute while improving local infrastructure and quality of life.

How he brings hope to the disabled around the world:  In Brazil, previously overlooked children can now hope for a brighter future. And around the world, those suffering from paralysis have new hope that they may one day walk again. As one wheelchair-bound man in New York told CNN, “Thank God there are people who are working this hard in research. And thank God there people who are so much smarter than I would ever have imagined.”

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Filed under: Education • Innovation • Science • Social change • Tech • The Next List
soundoff (8 Responses)
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    Finally, a serious article about Brazil. I guess that the world need to know the reality about this country, more tham foolish stereotypes and sensationalized news.

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  8. Michelle

    This is a great idea. however it is never mentioned that an exoskeleton has already been invented and being used. It isn't using the brain to power the exoskeleton, but it is in use already and changing lives for many people.

    March 10, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Reply

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