March 7th, 2013
05:13 PM ET

Miguel Nicolelis and his mind-controlled prosthetic limbs

Brazilian-born Miguel Nicolelis is a professor of neurobiology at Duke University and a pioneer in the field of brain-machine-interfaces, in which brain waves from a human or animal control a robot-limb prosthethis. For more on Nicolelis and his work, watch "The Next List" this Sunday at 2:30 pm ET on CNN.

By Miguel Nicolelis

For the past 30 years, I have dedicated my career as a neurobiologist to unveil the physiological principles that underlie how our brain circuits, formed by billions of interconnected cells, known as neurons, create the entirety of our human nature and history out of sheer electrical brainstorms.

To pursue this quest, my colleagues and I at the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering have developed a variety of new methods and technologies to probe the brain in search of any hint, any glimpse that could place us on the right trail to answer the greatest mysteries of all times: how the entire wealth of the human mind emerges from a mesh of organic tissue.

In 1999, John Chapin, my former postdoctoral advisor, and I published a scientific paper that introduced to the neuroscience community what by then seemed to be just another promising new experimental tool in brain research. Without much ceremony, we named this new experimental paradigm brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) and, in a flurry of papers that followed the original report, we described the technical details of our unorthodox combination of neurophysiological methods, real-time computing and robotics to create a direct and bidirectional interface between living animal brains and a variety of mechanical and electronic machines.

In the late 1990s, our initial effort in building such devices was entirely motivated by the desire to establish a powerful experimental tool to carry on work related to the investigation of the neurophysiological principles that allow behavior, the true business of the brain, to emerge flawlessly and effortlessly, time and time again, from the widespread dynamic interactions of large populations of neurons that comprise any brain circuit.

By the time our original papers were published in scientific journals, very few people, outside a small number of experts working in the emergent field of BMIs, could envision the enormous clinical potential that this newly acquired ability to interface brains and machines could unleash and how it could influence the future of rehabilitation medicine.

What a difference 15 years make! After a mere decade and a half of intense research and stunning experimental demonstrations, brain-machine interfaces have become the core of a large variety of potential future new therapies for neurological disorders, such as untreatable epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and devastating levels of body paralysis. Moreover, in the not so remote future, BMIs of a different variety may allow us to perform a lot of our daily routine tasks, such as interacting with our smartphones, just by thinking!

Welcome to the era of brain-actuating technology; the age in which the brain’s voluntary desire to move will be liberated from the physical limits of the human body that host it.

In the CNN show you are about to watch, you will be introduced to the Walk Again Project (WAP), the first worldwide, non-profit international brain research consortium aimed at building a new generation of robotic limb prostheses, which can be directly controlled by the subject’s own brain activity through a brain-machine interface. In the future, we hope that neuroprostheses such as the ones the WAP intends to build could be used to restore full-body mobility in tens of millions of severely paralyzed patients worldwide.

To showcase to the entire world that this moment could be fast approaching, the WAP has proposed to have the first public demonstration of such a potentially revolutionary medical rehabilitation technology during the opening football match of the FIFA 2014 Soccer World Cup on June 12, 2014, in São Paulo, Brazil.

According to this proposal, at 5:00 pm that afternoon, a Brazilian young adult, who is paralyzed below the waist down will emerge in the pitch wearing a robotic vest, known as an exoskeleton, whose movements are controlled by some sort of brain-derived signals. Then, using all his voluntary will, this true herald of a new era shall walk autonomously all the way to center field, and once there,  kick a ball to deliver the official start of the World Cup.

In essence, what we propose is that, in the land that invented the “beautiful game," the opening kickoff of the greatest sports event in the world becomes a scientific “Gol” to all of humanity.

Filed under: Innovation • Robots • Science • Tech • The Next List • Thinkers