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World Cup 2014 exoskeleton: mind-control robotic suit to help paralyzed walk again

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Published on May 12, 2014

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A robotic exoskeleton could allow a paraplegic to deliver the first kick of the World Cup in Brazil next month, as part of a project to showcase technology aimed at overcoming paralysis.

The Walk Again Project is led by Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist based at Duke University in North Carolina. The research behind the project is backed by a variety of institutions including the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering, the Technical University of Munich, and other universities from the U.S., Germany, Switzerland and Brazil.

The mechanical exoskeleton is able to support a paralyzed person's lower body and responds to wireless commands that come from electrodes placed on the person's scalp or within the brain. A computer worn as a backpack then converts the commands into movement. When the exoskeleton's leg touches the ground, sensors send a signal to an electronic vibrator that vibrates on the wearer's arm.

"When the exoskeleton starts to move and touches the ground, this signal is transmitted to an electronic vibrator on the arm of the patient. The vibrator stimulates the skin of the patient," Nicolelis told the BBC. "What happens when you practice for a long time is that the brain starts associating the movements of the legs with the vibration in the arm. So the patient starts developing the sensation that he has legs and that he is walking."

Eight patients, all of them at least 20 years old and the oldest 35, have been training with the technology in a lab in Sao Paulo since November. Nicolelis told the BBC that the original plan was for one of them to stand up out of his or her wheelchair and deliver the opening kick.

"That was the original plan," Nicolelis said. "But not even I could tell you the specifics of how the demonstration will take place. This is being discussed at the moment."

The first scheduled match of the World Cup 2014 will take place in Sao Paolo, between Croatia and host country, Brazil, on June 12.

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