(CBS NEWS)- A paralyzed man was able to walk using a mind-controlled robotic suit, French researchers report. The 30-year-old man, identified only as Thibault, moved all four of his paralyzed limbs using an exoskeleton controlled by his brain.
Thibault said walking in the suit was like being the “first man on the moon,” according to the BBC. While his movements were far from perfect, researchers believe the suit could one day improve patients’ quality of life. So far, Thibault has only tested it in the lab at Clinatec and the University of Grenoble in France.
The suit is controlled by two implants that were surgically placed on the surface of Thibault’s brain. The implants cover parts of the brain that control movement and 64 electrodes from each implant read the brain activity. The movement instructions are sent to a nearby computer, which reads the brainwaves and turns them into instructions for the exoskeleton, according to the BBC.
Thibault was paralyzed four years when he fell nearly 50 feet. He was previously an optician, but his spinal cord injury resulted in two years in the hospital. He began taking part in the exoskeleton trial in 2017, at first practicing on a virtual character in a computer game.
“I didn’t walk for two years. I forgot what it is to stand, I forgot I was taller than a lot of people in the room,” he said.
It took a lot longer for Tibault to learn how to control the arms, the BBC reports. “It was very difficult because it is a combination of multiple muscles and movements. This is the most impressive thing I do with the exoskeleton.”
The exoskeleton suit weighs more than 140 pounds and is attached to the ceiling by a harness, to minimize the risk of Thibault falling over. While it does not completely restore all function, it is a huge advancement.
“This is far from autonomous walking,” Prof. Alim-Louis Benabid, the president of the Clinatec executive board, told BBC News. “He does not have the quick and precise movements not to fall.”
The French scientists say they want to continue to refine the technology. They are currently limited by the amount of data they can read from the brain and send to the computer — and then back to the exoskeleton in real-time. They are also want to develop finger control, which would allow Thibault to pick up and move objects.
Other experts warn against getting too excited about this technology, which is still being developed. “A danger of hype always exists in this field. Cost constraints mean that hi-tech options are never going to be available to most people in the world with spinal cord injury.” Prof. Tom Shakespeare, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said.
He did also say the study is a “welcome and exciting advance,” but it still has a long way to go.