Friday, August 16, 2013

Run AND walk, it's...The Mindwalker!!

My very first Kiwanis blog post was about the amazing technological advances in prosthetics and how science is getting closer to making them less like assisting props and more like actual body parts that can be controlled neurologically. I find those kinds of advancements fascinating and am almost always amazed by them (like the bionic eye! How fantastic is that?). I'm a little late in finding out about today's topic, but my tardiness doesn't make it any less cool. Right?

It sounds like the title of a B-horror movie from days past, but unlike William Castle's paralysis-causing villain,“The Tingler”, a new device called the Mindwalker is using new technology to help people with paralysis get mobile.

The Mindwalker project, funded by the European Commission, is working to create the world's first mind-controlled exoskeleton. The idea is to bypass the damaged spinal cord and instead send brain signals to a robotic frame that supports a person's body weight and animates when instructed by the wearer.

It's a two-part device: the arguably more simple robot itself and the complex aspect of controlling the exoskeleton with the mind. This mind-reading technology is called Brain/Neural Computer Interface, or BNCI, and can turn EMG (electromyography) signals from the patient's shoulder or EEG (electroencephalography) signals from the brain into electronic commands. The user wears a “dry technology” EEG cap that gets rid of the need for invasive electrodes or awkward wet caps, and commands are sent from the brain to the exoskeleton attached to the user's legs.

As time has progressed, more modes of operation have been developed. For example, the best way involves wearing specialized glasses that have flashing diodes on the lenses. The diodes process light, and the EEG cap measures whether the user is concentrating more on the left side, which makes the exoskeleton walk, or the right side, which makes it stop. However, if the user is not paralyzed from the waist up, he or she can use a pressure sensor in the lower back to move the Mindwalker by leaning to one side or the other.

This is a lot of technological development, especially considering the project has only been underway for three years. The project has plans to continue for another five years. Developers are hoping to make the device less bulky, but who knows what else could happen in that time?

Isn't this stuff awesome? What do you think about the Mindwalker? Do you think it could be available to a widespread market in the future?

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