The breakthroughs of a University of California medical team may soon have Oscar Pistorius facing a whole new kind of Paralympic competition: those who are fully paralyzed.
Currently there is no way for paraplegics to participate in the 100-meter dash, but all that may change if researchers succeed in restoring "brain-controlled ambulation" to the paralyzed.
The team's current plan relies on a pair of mind-controlled robotic legs, which were tested earlier this year on a currently anonymous (and able-bodied) male, human subject, the Verge reports. The subject was able to alternate between 30-second bouts of sitting and walking via the power of robotic legs alone, for a total of 10 minutes.
The best part? The legs were solely controlled by the subject's mind, negating the need for the slow and often clumsy physical work-arounds built into current robotic prosthesis, and allowing the device to be used by even the fully paralyzed.
The device, currently called the "BCI RoGO System", is still in the early stages of testing and is not without hiccups.
For one, it takes 5 seconds to start walking and 7 seconds to stop, which may be inconvenient for a walker on a busy street. In addition, the BCI (that's the Brain-Computer Interface, or the part that lets the robotic prosthesis read your mind) has been taught how to recognize when the subject wants to start and stop walking, but it doesn't yet recognize other things a subject might want to do with a pair of legs, "e.g. turning, [controlling] velocity, sitting, standing."
Other RoGO kinks were overcome by the subject growing more accustomed to manipulating things with his mind.
The medical team had feared the legs would be hard to master by a subject unused to working with brain-computer interfaces; therefore, the subject was required to practice mind-controlling a computerized "walking avatar" for 5 hours before donning the legs. This cut the subject's pre-testing time for "familiarization" with the RoGO system down to 5 minutes. Within three trials, the subject was also able to overcome the plague of "false starts," instances when the system began walking sans the subject's psychic command (bad if one's near a sheer drop, or a busy street).
In a hopeful note for paraplegics, Wired magazine reports "when the subject walked using the braces under brain control, the muscle activity appeared distinct from natural leg movement but similar to passive walking, suggesting no leg muscle control was necessary for robo-assisted walking."
The next step, says the team, is to actually "test this system in individuals with paraplegia".
The video showing the robotic leg experiments was uploaded to Youtube by user "UCIBCI" on July 7 -- more than a month before the late-August research papers announcing the advances were released.
The University of California team has yet to release any more papers, but "UCIBCI" has posted a couple more videos since the RoGO test, including this one showing a stroke patient using BCI-controlled electrical stimulation to mitigate Foot Drop.
Whatever the case, should the team continue to succeed, it may be responsible for the next wave of Paralypians, or at least the 2014 World Cup Robotic Kickoff.