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French scientists help paralysed man to walk again

A French tetraplegic man who was unable to walk has become the first ever to walk again using a new kind of brain-controlled “exoskeleton”, created by scientists in Grenoble.

The man, named Thibault, is 28 years old and originally from Lyon. He is tetraplegic, meaning he cannot move his arms or legs unaided. He was left paralysed four years ago after a serious fall.

Now, thanks to the exoskeleton developed by scientists at the CEA biomedical research centre Clinatec in Isère (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes), Thibault is now able to control his hands, shoulders, legs and feet.

The exoskeleton works with two small electronic implants embedded in the two hemispheres of the patient’s brain. These "capture" brain waves and transform them into motor signals, so that when Thibault thinks about moving, the exoskeleton responds.

Video: The Lancet / YouTube

Work began on the project in June 2017, and it took Thibault two years of training on the exoskeleton and in virtual simulations to be able to use it well.

Clinical trials showed the patient taking several steps, and raising a glass of water to his mouth.

While the movement is not yet as fluid as researchers would like, the trial has now received approval from health authorities, allowing work to continue.

The report has been published today (Friday October 4) in the American scientific journal, The Lancet Neurology.

In the report, Alim-Louis Benabid, Emeritus professor at the Grenoble Alpes university and lead author of the study, said: "[In this case] the brain is still capable of generating orders that would usually make the arms and legs move, but no-one is executing it."

The Clinatec team said: “This is an important advance for disabled people’s independence.”

Speaking to the Agence-France Presse, Thibault said: "This is a message of hope for people in the same condition as myself; things are possible, even if we have a big handicap. I never thought we would come so far."

The exoskeleton is far from ready to be used everyday, but this will one day be the goal.

It is also hoped that the neuro-connected technology will help other disabled people in more scenarios, such as with an electric wheelchair, or in an articulated prosthetic arm.

Another patient is set to begin training, and have the electrodes implanted in their brain, in November.

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