sabato 31 maggio 2014

One giant leap for science, one small step for disability

When I posted on Twitter the Italian version of this post, Professor Miguel Nicolelis answered my tweets, and we started a brief conversation early in the morning (during my daily train journey to work ). You can read it below.

The kick-off the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, during the Opening Ceremony, on June 12, will be the most exciting moment for scientists working in developing a mind controlled exoskeleton, the robotic armor that supports from the outside the body.

A paraplegic person, who can't move both legs due to a spinal cord injury, will kick the first ceremonial ball, wearing a mind controlled exoskeleton which is guided through the electrical signals generated by neurons and picked up by surface electrodes placed in a special helmet. In these weeks the training is ongoing for three people (including two reserves) selected from among a dozen young candidates, not newly injured and having a weight not exceeding 70 kg.

The director of the show will be the neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis of Brazilian origin, 53 years old, a professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in the United States and head of the pioneering research on brain machine interface and neuroprostheses at the NicolelisLab.

Nicolelis, known for his advanced studies on monkeys (video), said it will be like "putting a man on the moon."
For a critical analysis you can read the articles by Greg Miller on, 2013 and 2014.

Exoskeleton research is amazing and there are also ongoing projects in Italy.

So far, in humans, experimental studies have shown that through these technologies – mind controlled - it is possible to move a cursor on a computer screen or to use a robotic sensitive hand.
Military organizations are now developing human
augmentation technologies, including real robotic armors controlled by joystick, force sensors, electromyographic signals,...

Nicolelis goes further and declares its intention to make wheelchairs obsolete.
At the present time this is an ambition, not a result, a provocative statement and not a rational hypothesis.
Exoskeletons are sophisticated machines that can operate for a limited time at high costs, of course not everyday, at home.

For the neuroscientist it's also an opportunity to come back to Brazil, that he left at 27 years old to move to the United States.
The Brazilian government has provided $20 million to build a research center and a robotic rehabilitation center in the hospital of San Paolo.

We don't know what will happen on June 12.
We don't know if the brain signals recorded from scalp electrodes will control the movement of a leg, the alternation of the two legs, the kick-off and the postural balance of the exoskeleton. And we will not be able to follow all the procedures through a video to be broadcasted worldwide.

It would be a galactic scientific result!
Not already the reaching of a clinical rehabilitation outcome: long-term effectiveness and costs need to be thoroughly checked and not soon.

We need to calm down our enthusiasm. Especially here, in Italy, because of our indomitable attraction to the adventurers. At least, keep a little bit of clarity to distinguish a scientific discovery from an effective prosthetic technology - which in any case cannot be proven by a demo!

Otherwise we would be complacent in giving disabled persons and their families false hopes.
And then a (hope) trip to Brazil will replace trips to Romania, where, a few years ago, a family has left – in a rehabilitation institute (not robotic) - all the money and all the hopes of seeing their son walk for the first time.

A great event is going to happen on June 12 and if the exoskeleton will move under mind control, it will be one great leap for science, one small step for disability.

A Twitter conversation with Professor Miguel Nicolelis.

May 22

@timetit: Nicolelis continues to show video of some steps w/ exoskeleton, we can only see legs, don't know how it's controlled nor paraplegia severity

@MiguelNicolelis: We show only legs to protect identify of our patients according to Brazilian law. Patient shown has a complete spinal cord lesion.
Video depicts patient using our brain interface to initiate locomotion.

@timetit: The News on Nicolelis concerns how much money is gathering, not Research Methods. Hopefully we will read an article in Nature...

@MiguelNicolelis: All our results will be published in peer review journals. Journalists are talking about cost. We are collecting data.
We cannot talk about findings before study is complete. we are just disclosing major achievements. That is how science works.

@timetit: Thanks. My concern re an excess of (worldwide) hope for a technology w/ no immediate clinical application in everyday life

@MiguelNicolelis: Every major therapy has to start like this.I do not see any reason for concern. We want to raise awareness and galvanize people around science and its humanitarian applications. The advances we witnessed during the past 18 months will reduce the time this technology will require to become available for patients. There is nothing wrong w/ that. Rather, it is a way to speed up the cycle
Besides, we did get 8 patients to experience what is to walk again. Their scores regarding the "sensation of walking" are very high

@timetit: I agree. But we need to be careful in distinguishing 1 hour of very important experience from permanent change in life.

@MiguelNicolelis: sure, but I will let the patients speak for themselves. Their opinion is the most relevant.
According to our patients, these few months of training changed their lives forever. Our clinical team says the same thing.
what I saw and heard these past 5 months changed me forever too. I doubt I will experience anything so powerful ever again.
when u hear their impressions u will understand what I mean. They all felt their legs were moving again thanks to the exo feedback.

@timetit: My work is in hospital w/ neurol pts -adult & children- so I know how great are these days. Hope for longlasting experience

@MiguelNicolelis: although I am a MD, PhD, I have been a basic scientist for 30 years. This project made me remember why I wanted to be a physician. and experiencing that feeling again after 40 years was simply exhilarating! Many great moments, well worth the effort!
and well worth the pain of having to deal with a couple of unprofessional journalists trying to set up false issues and polemics.
what you read at Wire is part of a campaign started by a group of scientists who left our Institute in BR and cannot get over it.

Wired article is based on personal attack by a disturbed man who has been discredited and exposed in Brazil.

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