CSU contributed to high-tech device that helps paraplegic patients walk
Scientists at Miguel Nicolelis’ lab in São Paulo work on the Walk Again Project, which will allow patients affected by paraplegia to walk with the assistance of an exoskeleton. A parapelegic patient will demonstrate the technology prior to the first World Cup game Thursday. (Photos by BigBonsai and LenteVivaFilmes, AFP, Getty Images)
FORT COLLINS, CO — Just before the World Cup soccer tournament begins Thursday with a match between host Brazil and Croatia, a paraplegic wearing an external skeleton will get up from a wheelchair, walk and kick a soccer ball by sending brain signals to motors in the exoskeleton.
A global TV audience set to watch the start of the world’s biggest sports event will witness the debut of a technological breakthrough that could provide improved mobility for the disabled in the next five to 10 years. A handful of students and professors at Colorado State were involved in the project.
In CSU’s Ideas-2-Product Laboratory, a 3D printing facility, they produced the “interface” between the paralyzed demonstrator and the exoskeleton. Specifically, the custom-made liner for a helmet that holds in place a skull cap with electrodes. Those electrodes detect brain signals and send commands to the exoskeleton.
“This has to be the neatest project I’ve ever been involved with,” said David Prawel, a professor of mechanical engineering who runs the lab and oversaw five students who worked on the project. “I’ve been in 3D technology over 30 years, and anytime you get an opportunity to actually touch someone and make their life different, you jump on it. Young people are going to see it and go, ‘My God, I can change people’s lives.’ ”
Alan Rudolph, who has been CSU’s vice president of research since last fall, is a key figure in the Walk Again Project that has involved 150 scientists and engineers in 25 countries on three continents. He has spent the past 15 years working in the emerging field of neuroengineering or “brain-machine interfaces,” and founded the International Neuroscience Network Foundation.
Rudolph partnered with Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian who is one of the world’s foremost authorities in this area of research. Two years ago, the Brazilian government asked Nicolelis to come up with a dramatic demonstration for the World Cup, and the Walk Again Project was born. The world will see its fruits before Thursday’s game in São Paulo.
“Someone will get up, walk and kick a ball by thinking and sending those thoughts and signals to the exoskeleton,” Rudolph said. “It’s a chapter in a longer journey we’ve been on, and it will continue after the World Cup. The demonstration is really just an inspirational showcase of what technology is coming very soon.”
David Prawel, director of CSU’s Idea-2-Product 3D printing lab, works with Kent Mackenzie to design, engineer and print a helmet liner that helps to protect the head. (Provided by Colorado State University)
Exoskeletons are not new, but brain control is. It works because scientists have determined locations in the motor cortex of the brain that generate signals associated with specific movements. Electrodes in the skull cap, held in place by the helmet produced at CSU, detect those signals.
“We have determined ways to extract signals from the brain,” Rudolph said. “The people and animals who are controlling these devices learn over time that they can just think about the movement and the signal will be generated. We have learned what that signal is, how to extract it and send it to a device that interprets the signal and takes action.”
When Rudolph came to CSU last October, a key piece was yet to be developed: the means to hold the skullcap and its electrodes securely in place, which is crucial.
“There were components of the project that we still needed, and one of them was rapid prototyping and custom-designed pieces for the interface between the subjects and the exoskeleton,” Rudolph said. “I contacted the 3D printing lab.”
In 3D printing, molten plastic material is laid down precisely by a nozzle moving as directed by a computer program, and it can produce very intricate shapes. It took 58 hours for the 3D printer at CSU to create the liner that went to Brazil.
“You take a 3D object and you break it into many, many slices, and then the printer prints each slice,” Prawel said. “It goes up and prints another slice, and up, and prints another slice.”
Subjects had their heads scanned in Brazil and Paris. That digital data was sent to CSU via the Internet, and those scans were used to produce the liners. The CSU team ordered a generic helmet online, removed the stock liner, scanned the inside of the helmet and made their custom liner with a rubber-like polymer using the 3D printer.
Rudolph is excited about where the technology is heading.
“You’re going to see a real improvement of the exoskeletons, more and more integration with the person using them, including brain control,” Rudolph said. “And the fact that we have a handful of commercial exoskeleton companies already selling into the neuro-rehabilitation hospitals, if the price point comes down for these, I think you’ll see penetration into individual personal use. I think it’s a realizable goal in the five- to 10-year time frame.”
The folks at CSU will be proud when the world gets to glimpse that future at the World Cup.
“In the beginning you’re never quite certain it’s actually going to work and you can actually do that, but we did,” Prawel said. “I’ve seen the videos of them walking, and it’s moving.”
Post By: John Meyer
The Denver Post