Health and Healthcare Systems

How paralysed patients powered machines with their minds to move again

Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis works in his robotic laboratory in Sao Paulo May 21, 2014. Nicolelis is leading "The Walk Again Project", where a mechanical exoskeleton is able to support a paralysed person's lower body and responds to wireless commands that come from electrodes placed on the person's scalp or within the brain. The robotic exoskeleton could allow a paraplegic to deliver the first kick of the World Cup in Brazil next month, as part of a project to showcase technology aimed at overcoming paralysis. Picture taken May 21, 2014.

Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis works in his robotic laboratory in Sao Paulo. Image: REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

Alex Gray
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Health and Healthcare Systems?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Health and Healthcare is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Health and Healthcare

Advances in computing and robotics technology are allowing scientists to restore movement and sensation to people who have suffered devastating spinal injuries.

The World Health Organisation estimates that between 250,000 and 500,000 people suffer a spinal cord injury every year. In the worst cases these injuries leave a person unable to move, or without feeling below the neck.

The experiment

Dr. Miguel Nicolelis leads a team of scientists at Duke University Center for Neuroengineering in Sao Paolo. His team is doing pioneering work to reverse the damage caused by spinal injury.


Eight paraplegics received 12 months of “brain training”, using a combination of virtual reality, a robotic walker and a brain-machine interface.

In sessions using virtual reality, participants in the study were able to imagine regaining full control of their limbs. Then, patients used a walking device, typically used in physical therapy, which allowed them to combine the movement of walking with their virtual reality imagination. In the final part of the training programme, the participants were connected via computer to a custom-designed exoskeleton.

 Neurorehabilitation training
Image: Nature

How does it work?

The brain communicates messages using electrical impulses. Patients wore a cap fitted with electrodes that picked up these messages and sent them to a computer. The computer then told the exoskeleton how to move. This happens in the same amount of time it would take a non-paralysed person’s brain to perform the same message function. The exoskeleton essentially becomes an extended part of the patient.

The results

The result of the “brain training” was that the participants were able to move the exoskeleton using their own brains. But the results also went further than the Brazilian team had anticipated. They saw a partial neural recovery.

In other words, the scientists believe that some fibres within the spinal cord were “woken up” by the training, allowing patients to regain some voluntary movement and sense of touch. As a result, half the participants were downgraded from fully, to partially paralysed.

All eight patients regained some control of their lower limbs. This was true even for those who had been injured a decade or more earlier.

The Brazilian team’s research showed that work is advancing on enabling computers attached to our brains to read our thoughts. This has significant implications, including allowing amputees to control their prosthetic limbs and allowing spinal cord injury patients to move again.

Dr. Miguel Nicolelis believes this technique could ultimately make the wheelchair a thing of the past.

“Once you get the brain outside the physical limits of the body,” he said, “The limit is the imagination.”

Have you read?

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Health and Healthcare SystemsFourth Industrial RevolutionEmerging Technologies
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Feeding the future: why Renovation and Reinvention are key to saving our food system

Juliana Weltman Glezer

June 13, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum