The chance of going into history was missed when the dream project of a renowned neuroscientist failed to make it to the World Cup opener, but it so seems that the powerful contribution of the Turkish football fans will continue to reverberate across the scientific world.
At the demonstration planned for the opening match of the World Football Championship at Sao Paulo on June 12, a paralysed teen would be brought with wheelchair to the center spot of the field, and as the jam-packed stalls fell into silence, the teen would rise from the chair, move slowly towards the ball with the help of a brain-controlled exoskeleton and make the symbolic kickoff.
Had the scenario been played out, it would also be the culmination of the dream of the Brasilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, who, in his Duke University lab in the U.S., acquired fame with his work on brain-computer interfaces, to provide mobility to the paralysed, in the scope of the International “Walk Again Project.” To help realize the project, Nicolelis had founded the International Institute for Neuroscience of Natal in his native Brasil. Formerly, the researcher had come under scientific limelight with his work at Duke lab which enabled rhesus monkeys to move their two avatar arms with brain signals. (See: “Monkeys use brains to manipulate avatars”, KUrious, S&T news.) But although his initial plan was to employ electrodes implanted into the brain for the communication of commands to the exoskeleton, he later opted for a ”more proven” – but less spectacular – non-invasive EEG sensor cap.
In an interview published in the 6 June 2014 edition of Science, Nicolelis explained the mechanism was based on a concept of “shared control” his group had formulated 12 years ago, in which the “higher order” commands are given by the brain, while “lower order” action is carri,ed out by the robot. As the patient imagines he is moving his leg, the mketallic exoskeleton is manipulated by means of a mechanism which the researcher calls “artificial skin.” A wave of signals produced when the foot touches the ground is transmitted to the arms through a special shirt equipped with small vibrational devices. After a few training sessions the patient’s brain associates these signals either with the movement of the legs, or touching the ground. The enhanced control not only improves the motor performances of the patient, but provides the welcome sensation of controlling his movements himself instead of being carried by a machine. The higher-order decisions for the World Cup demo included “start walking”, “stop”, “accelerate”, “slow down”, “turn left”, “turn right” etc.
So where the Turkish football fans enter the picture?
Answer: In the psychological training of the patient:
Nicolelis and his team set up a virtual reality environment at their Sao Paulo lab, simulating a football stadium in order to prevent cognitive and neurological performances of the patients, conditioned to the quiet atmosphere of the laboratories, from falling behind the standards under the pressure of the noise of the stadium. There, the patients were familiarized with the flashing lights and the thunderous noise of the stalls.
And who is to provide the thunder? Who else but theT urkish football fanatics.
“ … If ou can do this EEG task while listening to Turkish football fans, like they did, which are the loudest fans in the world, this crowd in Brazil will look like an elementary school class in comparison, “ says a confident Nicolelis. “Even if they’re screaming with the full strength of their Brazilian lungs, it doesn’t get close to the Turkish guys, I can tell you. We measured.”
- 1. “Kickoff looms for demo of brain-controlled machine”, Science, 6 June 2014