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A first kick worth watching: A paraplegic wearing an exoskeleton suit will open World Cup

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SÃO PAULO — Many of the players who will start the World Cup opening game between Brazil and Croatia today will have been dreaming about this moment most of their lives – not least Brazilian star Neymar.

But for the Brazilian who will kick the first ball during the opening ceremony, the experience will be literally life-changing – the ball will be kicked by a young adult paraplegic, wearing an exoskeleton suit controlled by the wearer’s brain waves.

“The patient imagines that he wants to move, to walk. This is detected by sensors and sent to a computer which interprets this information and sends info to the exoskeleton,” said Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, who leads the project, talking by phone. “It allows the patient to control movements on the lower limbs, that’s the first innovation. The second is the exoskeleton generates these movements.”

Walk Again, as the project is called, is run in Brazil by the Edmond & Lily Safra Natal International Neuroscience Institute (ELS-IINN) in a partnership with the Association for Assistance to Disabled Children (AACD) in São Paulo.

Nicolelis has worked in the neuroscience field since 1984, and he first began working on the idea in 1989 while studying a post-docturate in the USA. In 1999, he developed it into a research paper he wrote with John Chapin. “We created this concept of linking brains to machines,” said Nicolelis. He began developing research areas at the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering in North Carolina in 2001, where tests were originally done on rats and monkeys.

In the last 17 months, he said, the Brazilian government has spent around $14 million funding the project. An international team of 150 worked on the project with robotic work coordinated by Gordon Cheng at the Technical University of Munich.

The exoskeleton reacts to the operator’s brain activity and moves on the wearer’s commands. An artificial skin made of flexible printed circuit boards with pressure, temperature and speed sensors is attached the lower limbs and enables the operator to ‘feel’ the sensation of walking.

“When the patient has trained for a few days, the sensation is that their legs are moving, that they are moving their paralyzed body, rather than being carried by a robot,” said Nicolelis. His eight patients had the use of their legs before the accident, and reported that during experiments they could “feel” their limbs moving.

Nearly 33,000 people have now liked a facebook page which has been counting down the days to the Walk Again project’s world debut in front of millions of worldwide television viewers. Thousands have shared videos published on the page in which unnamed paraplegic patients can be seen from the waist down breathing heavily as they take tentative steps using what looks like a “Robocop” suit. No patient identities have yet been revealed.

“One lady said she could feel her leg, she felt her feet warming up,” Nicolelis said. “She described to us it was like walking a treadmill. Another patient said it was like walking on sand again. Like you were walking on a beach. Every one of the eight patients had this illusion.”

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