Big kick to freedom at World Cup opener

12 June 2014 - 02:24 By Roxanne Henderson
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A paraplegic teenager wearing a brain-controlled robotic exoskeleton will take the first kick of the Fifa World Cup at the opening ceremony today in São Paulo, Brazil.

Eight patients from the Association for Assistance to Disabled Children in Brazil, who are paralysed from the waist down, have been in training for the past few months, learning how to use the exoskeleton.

Event organisers have not released the identity of the teen.

The robotic brace, called the BRA-Santos Dumont I, is the work of more than 100 scientists who form the Walk Again Project. The project is led by Professor Miguel Nicolelis, from the International Institute for Neurosciences of Natal in Brazil, and Professor Gordon Cheng, who heads the Institute for Cognitive Systems at the Technical University of Munich in Germany. The technology works by recording electrical activity in the user's brain, recognising his or her intention to move, and translating that into action. The brain machine interface also gives the user a physical response or sense of touch using sensitive artificial skin.

Cheng, who designed the artificial skin, said the device is "a demonstration of what science can really do for somebody". He said there is still much work to be done to create a product that is affordable and provides more agility.

Regan Ryan, a physiotherapist at Joburg rehabilitation centre Rehab First, is enthusiastic about the exoskeleton but is wary of calling it a breakthrough, saying "it is very much in the research phase".

"The premise that these machines will be able to help any paraplegic patient is a lie because everyone is different," Ryan said.

He said it could be a number of years before it appears on the market and that it is unlikely to be affordable. Bionic legs now available cost about R1-million.

The World Cup opening ceremony will be screened live at 8.15pm.

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