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Mind to motion

Brain-computer interfaces promise new freedom for the paralyzed and immobile

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2:05pm, November 1, 2013

WALKING WITH ROBOTS  Spinal cord–injury patient Gene Alford takes a supported step in NeuroRex, a thought-controlled robotic walking device. An electrode cap detects electrical signals from his brain that, decoded by a computer, tell the device to move.

Thick Velcro straps cinched the robot’s legs to Steve Holbert’s calves and thighs. The straps were snug — they helped secure his body to the machine. But they had to be fastened just right. Too loose and Holbert might slip around. Too tight and the straps could cause pressure sores. Not that Holbert could tell the difference: He hadn’t felt his legs since 2009.

Holbert was testing out a brain-controlled walking device for people who are paralyzed. He had tried the machine before, but couldn’t quite get it to sync up with his thoughts. This afternoon, he was giving it another shot. Already, researchers in José “Pepe” Contreras-Vidal’s lab at the University of Houston had stretched an electrode-studded cap over Holbert’s head and strapped him into the robot, an 80-pound hulk of high-tech machinery and electronics named the NeuroRex. “It reminds me of the cargo-loader Sigourney Weaver drives in Aliens,” Holbert says.

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