Published in West

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It now looks likely that a paraplegic boy will kick off the World Cup in Brazil. What seemed an impossibility took a step closer to becoming reality in December, when Brazilian neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis presented a video showing the first tests with an exoskeleton controlled by neural impulses. It’s part of the Walking Again project, on which Nicolelis is leading an international team of over 100 scientists. “It’s like sending a man to the moon,” he says. “The only way to do the project was to recruit the best scientists in the world and convince them to give up their salaries and their patents. We are using some innovative ideas that have never been published.” Nature Magazine named the Walking Again project as one of the most promising scientific studies in 2014.

A teenager chosen by the Association for Assistance to Disabled Children (AACD), will wear the exoskeleton. It’s a metal frame that fits from the waist down, is connected by sensors to the brain and is controlled by a computer installed in a kind of backpack. With this apparatus, the teenager can get up out of a chair, walk a few steps and kick a ball, using just brain commands. It is a significant achievement in the field of rehabilitation for patients suffering from physical paralysis. “We made this proposal to the government. Instead of the typical music show at opening ceremonies, we can surprise the world by holding a scientific demonstration,” he said.

Nicolelis has been working in the field of organs & system physiology and integration between the human brain and neuro-prosthetics for many years. As professor of neurobiology and biomedical engineering, as well as being co-director at the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University, USA, he caused a stir in November last year when he published a study in Science Translational Magazine. The study showed how two monkeys learned to control the arm movements of a virtual body using just electrical brain activity.

Nicolelis is also leading a project at the International Neuroscience Institute based in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte. The institute was established in 2005 with support from Lily Safra and the Safra Foundation, which made the biggest donation in the history of Brazilian science. It conducts scientific research in a very poor region. “The campus has a research laboratory, a school of sciences for the local children and a clinic for women’s health,” he said.

Nicolelis, however, remains at Duke, where he is also dedicated to their participation at the prestigious Brain and Mind Institute of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland) doing advanced scientific studies, such as electrophysiology, sensory systems and somatosensory systems. Scientific American ranked Nicolelis as one of the 20 greatest scientists in the world in the past decade. He’s also said to be a strong contender for a Nobel Prize and is perhaps the only Brazilian scientist who has ever come that close to this distinction.