Could The World Cup's Mind-Controlled Exoskeleton Be The Next Frontier Of Medical Technology?

My mother - afflicted with Muscular Dystrophy - spent much of her life bound to a wheelchair. Although she was not paralyzed, her legs were far too weak to carry her own weight. As a result, there were some things she simply was not capable of doing. It was a reality we all had to live with, sadly.

Although she has passed away, others like her may one day soon be able to walk, thanks to an innovation being showcased at this year's world cup in São Paulo this June. There, a paralyzed young man will use a robotic exoskeleton to take the field and deliver the first kick of the games. The coolest part is that he'll be doing this by thought alone - he'll be operating the machine with his mind. 

Awesome, right? With tech like this, being rendered paraplegic will no longer bind you to a wheelchair or the bed. People with physical disabilities will be able to move around just like anyone else. It's been hailed by its creator, Miguel Nicolelis, as a medical milestone; a miracle of technology akin to putting a man on the moon.

Not everyone is so convinced. Sadly, I count myself among the skeptics. There's a very good chance that Nicolelis is simply grandstanding, raising false hopes among the disabled. He does, after all, have many critics within the scientific community; these men and women have accused him of being too ambitious, and of wasting scarce federal research money for what amounts to little more than a spectacle.

"There's a lot of people betting it's nothing really amazing, and it's really just grandstanding," said University of Michigan neuroscientist and biomedical engineer Daniel Ferris to Wired. "Until I actually see it in action, I'm reserving judgement on it." Unfortunately, it's not going to be all that easy to evaluate Nicolelis's technology based on what we see on TV. 

The reason, of course, is that it'd be incredibly easy to set up the robot so that it executes a series of pre-programmed motions when it detects electrical impulses sent out by the subject's brain. In that case, the person wearing the suit isn't actually controlling it - they're just sending stop/go commands. If, on the other hand, they actually are taking direct control of all the mechanical components, well...

Even then, says Ferris, there's no guarantee it's as ground-breaking as everyone claims. 

"Is this someone with a partial spinal cord injury who could maybe walk a little on their own, but now they're walking with the exoskeleton around them?" This would, he explains, make it near-impossible to tell how much the exoskeleton is contributing to their motion. As a result, he says; "you're going to have to rely on what they claim."

Currently, EEG exoskeleton devices for paralyzed patients do exist, but they're so painstaking and slow that it's almost better to simply go with the wheelchair. What's more, these devices are hardly widespread- Ferris estimates that no more than thirty EEG exoskeletons are in use at the moment, for stints of no more than two or three hours a day (if that). 

If the world cup demo is really as impressive as promised - and if the technology behind it really checks out - that number could greatly increase.

For his part, Nicolelis is relatively unfazed by his critics, stating that currently, results with the exoskeleton are "far better than expected; we didn't expect to be this far advanced from a clinical point of view, nor to have such interesting results," adding that this project is in his eyes an opportunity to give something back to his native country. 

According to these same critics, in giving something back to Brazil, Nicolelis is taking a great deal away from it. The funding given to Nicolelis's exoskeleton project - and the money used in the construction of the World Cup Stadium - is seen as a horrible waste in a country where many don't even have adequate sanitation. Unfortunately, what this amounts to is that even if Nicolelis's project does end up being a success, it's going to be looked down on by some. 

"Every day on my way to work I pass this mega stadium. It's beautiful... like something from another planet," said Edward Tehovnik of the Universidade Federal Do Rio Grande do Norte. "And then I look over and I see garbage on the streets, I see potholes everywhere, I see houses collapsing, I see poverty. I wish the money for the stadium was used to build something to benefit people in the long run. For me, this represents an unfortunate thing, and this kid kicking the ball is an extension of all that." 

I can't say whether or not Nicolelis's project is going to bear fruit. I'm no neuroscientist, nor am I an engineer. What I can say, though, is that I sincerely hope it does. If this exoskeleton accomplishes even half of what Nicolelis promises, people like my mother will no longer have to simply dream of walking - they'll be able to move under their own power.