A new brain-to-computer technology that translates a person’s thoughts into leg movements has helped a man, who is paralyzed from the waist down from a spinal cord injury, become the first such patient to walk without the use of robotics.
Five years after being paralyzed in a motorcycle crash, the 28-year-old paraplegic’s slow first steps were recorded in a preliminary study published in the British-based Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation late Wednesday along with a YouTube video, Fox News reports. During the experiment, Fritz said he had to stay focused only on putting one foot in front of the other as a computer algorithm translated his brain waves into impulses that bypassed his damaged spinal cord and activated his legs, Reuters reports.
Fritz told Reuters that if “you break your concentration, it wouldn’t work anymore.” “Once I finished, I had that ‘Oh my God, this thing worked,’ kind of moment,” he said. Fritz called the experience “exhilarating.”
The “proof-of-concept” study demonstrated how brain-to-computer technology allowed Fritz to become the first person paralyzed from the waist down to walk without using robotics. The moment, which occurred last October, was captured on video and uploaded to YouTube.
And it didn’t look easy. He shuffled along with the support of a harness and a walker, which was necessary since he cannot feel his feet or legs, according to Huffington Post. But researchers said that he propelled himself by his own leg muscles, controlled by his brain waves, for more than 12 feet.
Fritz claimed that stopping was harder than taking the steps “because at that point you’re focusing so hard on getting yourself to walk that to instantly stop, that was actually difficult to do.” He added that he spent a year preparing for the experiment. “I spent months sitting in front of a computer just trying to make that little avatar move, and there were times I felt like, ‘What’s the point? I’m never going to get it,'” he said. Of course, he got the hang of it.
Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, say that the feat marks a promising yet incremental achievement in the development and improvement of brain-computer interfaces. These small steps could one day help spinal injury and stroke victims get some of their mobility back.
“Even after years of paralysis, the brain can still generate robust brain waves that can be harnessed to enable basic walking,” study co-author Dr. An Do, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of California, Irvine, said. “We showed that you can restore intuitive, brain-controlled walking after a complete spinal cord injury.”
Though this is true, the report was based on just one patient. Further research will need to be conducted to determine whether other paralyzed people can benefit from the technology.