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Scientist Touts Exoskeleton That Could Offer A Chance To Walk Again


This Thursday, the eyes of the world will be on Brazil during the World Cup's opening ceremony. And there'll be a remarkable moment during that event. From São Paulo, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: On Thursday, a man who is paralyzed will showcase to the whole world what a combination of science, a willing government and dreams can achieve. The person, and who he is is being kept a tightly guarded secret, has a high spinal cord injury that left him unable to move from the waist down. Next week, he won't only walk, but he will kick a football at the opening ceremony of the World Cup. This is the scientist who made it all happen.

MIGUEL NICOLELIS: My name is Miguel Nicolelis. I'm a professor of neurobiology and director of the Center for Engineering at Duke University.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So here we are. Tell me what it is that I'm seeing right here in front of me.

NICOLELIS: Well, you're basically seeing one of our exoskeletons, you know, that was built for this research that we are doing, here in Brazil, as part of the Walk Again Project.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nicolelis meets me at his workshop in Sao Paulo, a nondescript building with no sign in a residential part of the city. We speak next to a hulking metal skeleton, which is much larger than the average man.

NICOLELIS: This is wearable robot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me how it works.

NICOLELIS: Yes. That's a robotic vest. As you can see, it has joints. It has a hip. It has a knee. It has ankle. It has many different innovations that you don't normally see associated with exoskeletons. First of all, it is for paralyzed people. So it has to protect the patient and it has to provide for movements that the patient cannot make.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the most amazing part of this is not just the hardware, but how that hardware is controlled.

NICOLELIS: So it's one of the first, I think, the first exoskeleton controlled by brain activities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nicolelis is one of the pioneers in the field. He started in the late 1990s, experimenting with rats. Then he moved on to monkeys. And with this project, they have invented a noninvasive helmet that send signals from the human brain to the exoskeleton.

NICOLELIS: So when the patient is here and wants to walk, he imagines, I want to walk. And this basically activates the robot to walk.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the robot sends back information to the brain, which has led to something which Nicolelis says is incredible.

NICOLELIS: So at the end of the training, the patient refer to us that they actually feeling that they're walking by themselves that there's no machine. It's like their legs are walking again. One of the patients even told us that he felt that he was walking on the beach again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But why is this being showcased at the World Cup? Well, the other thing you need to know about Nicolelis is that he's a soccer fan - a big one. So he said to the Brazilian government, hey everyone knows we Brazilians love soccer. Let's showcase the different kind of country that's emerging now.

NICOLELIS: Let's showcase Brazil as the land where technological innovation can be put to the service of millions of people that need it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Brazilian government funded the project, but by the time FIFA, soccer's world governing body, approved the plan, there was only 17 months left to make it happen.

NICOLELIS: And most people thought it was completely impossible to get here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The team, which has over 125 people from five continents working in labs all of the world, got it done. He says he'll never forget the first time the exoskeleton worked.

NICOLELIS: Well, we had a room full of scientists and engineers. Some of them are pretty hard-core people. And they all crying. I mean, the patient and everybody was crying because the patient is saying, I'm free again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And while Nicolelis says his technology might someday change the lives of injured patients all over the world, what has moved him the most has been the reaction of children in his home country, Brazil. Soccer is soccer, he says, but science can change the world.

NICOLELIS: And I think that's one of the great missions of this project is to again fascinate children with science. Science can be a very powerful agent of social transformation and to do good things for humanity for a change.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. NPR News, Sao Pablo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.