The walk again project : EPFL

Interview with Prof. Hannes Bleuler, Robotics System Laboratory, EPFL

1) What’s the EPFL project about?

EPFL collaborates with Professor Miguel Nicolelis since 2007 as partner for robotics (professor Nicolelis being a neurologist). In the walk-again project, members of our lab have been responsible for Virtual Reality training (Solaiman Shokur), connecting the brain-computer interface to the full simulation in virtual reality, and training with the selected patients since over half a year. Simon Gallo is responsible for the “haptic feedback”, that is, the suit equipped with vibrators and LEDs on the forearms to indicate position and status within the stance (ground contact of heel, sole and toes) of the foot, and the position of the leg. This is necessary as the paraplegic patient does not have nerve signals from his foot and leg.

2) How did it start?

It started with Professor Nicolelis’ work on his famous brain-computer interface of monkeys, decoding motor signals directly recorded from the monkey’s brain to control the limbs. His idea was to move a robot from these decoded brain signals. I visited him at Duke University in 2006 and then hired Solaiman Shokur who started in 2007 to work on this project at EPFL. He later also worked at Duke University with real robots and Virtual Reality devices controlled directly with the brain of a monkey.

3) How can it change people’s lives?

Such control of artificial limbs, exoskeletons or prostheses, bring tremendous hope to paraplegics, amputees and stroke patients. We know how to build the robotic limbs, but it is not practical and not even possible to control them by joysticks. The subject wants to control them like a natural limb, directly with his brain. That’s what this research is about.

4) What is the impact of such this research and technology?

The impact will be that paraplegics have again reasonable hope of recovering part of their faculties. This kind of brain-controlled device is effectively a prosthesis for the lost neural function, a replacement for the lost nerves. In the process, we are learning a lot about the working of motor control, that is, how our brain manages to control so efficiently the huge number of muscles in the human body. No robot is yet nearly as performant as the human body and its control by the brain. We will learn step by step how the brain and the neural motor control system is designed and organized, and how it works.

5) How was this international collaboration (th Walk Again project) arranged? When did it start?

The project is entirely Professor Nicolelis’ idea. He selected international participants for the main aspects of the project (clinical, exoskeleton, training, brain-machine interface, sensors, haptic and visual feedback ) and set up an organizational structure to coordinate the project so that all contributions fit together. We all meet and travel when necessary. The concrete work on the project started at the early spring of 2013 and the results will for the first time be presented at the Opening Game of the FIFA World Cup 2014 in the Arena Corinthians in São Paulo, Brazil.

Led by Professor Miguel Nicolelis, the Walk Again Project is a nonprofit, international collaboration among the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, the Technical University of Munich, the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal in Brazil, The University of California, Davis, The University of Kentucky, and Regis Kopper of The Duke immersive Virtual Environment.

This started with research from the Nicolelis lab using hair-thin and flexible sensors, known as microwires, that have been implanted into the brains of rats & monkeys. These flexible electrical prongs can detect minute electrical signals, or action potentials, generated by hundreds of individual neurons distributed throughout the animals’ frontal and parietal cortices—the regions that define a vast brain circuit responsible for the generation of voluntary movements.