At the opening game of the 2014 World Cup in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with thousands of fans watching from the stands and millions more on their televisions, a paralyzed adult will take the field in a wheelchair.
Clad in a mechanical bodysuit, he will stand, walk up to a soccer ball and kick it, aided only by the prosthetic exoskeleton that he controls with his brain waves.
If successful, the June 12 live demonstration, known as the Walk Again Project, will mark the first time a paralyzed person walks on his own using a device he directs. Alan Rudolph, Colorado State University’s vice president for research, will be standing along the sidelines as the historic event unfolds. It will be the moment he and the rest of the Walk Again team have worked toward for nearly two years.
Rudolph, who has a doctorate in zoology, has long been interested in biological dynamics and bio-inspired engineering. It drove his research while in college and later as a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – or DARPA.
“I’ve always been fascinated by biological adaptation,” Rudolph said. “When I look at my career, it’s the common theme.”
At DARPA, that interest led him to neuroengineering and how technology and machines can help humans regain skills or adapt to a changed environment. During his years at the federal agency, he oversaw several projects involving tissue-based biosensors, controlled biological systems, and brain-machine interfaces.
“The projects really pushed the boundaries of the field,” Rudolph said.
It is also where he met Miguel Nicolelis, a native of Brazil, who is leading the development of the Walk Again exoskeleton. Nicolelis, a prominent neuroscience researcher at Duke University, is well-known in the field, particularly for a 2003 demonstration in which he proved monkeys could control a robotic arm with only their thoughts. Rudolph later became a member of the adjunct faculty in Duke’s Center for Neuroengineering. He also teamed with Nicolelis on projects through the International Neuroscience Network Foundation, which Rudolph directs. The foundation coordinates and sponsors research that advances early diagnosis and treatment for illnesses such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, and other neural impairments.
When the Brazilian government approached Nicolelis about demonstrating a research project at the opening of the 2014 World Cup, he turned to Rudolph and the foundation to be on the team. Rudolph, who also has a master’s degree in business administration, has acted primarily as a project manager, ensuring the 125 members of the research team spread across the globe are communicating and working together. “There needed to be someone with a business and technical background helping to manage this project,” he said.
Rudolph joined CSU in October 2013 and immediately began looking for opportunities to involve university researchers in the Walk Again project. He found it with CSU’s Idea-2-Product Laboratory, the on-campus 3D printing facility that is open to students, staff, faculty and the public.
The Need for a Liner
The wearer controls the Walk Again exoskeleton with the help of a cap containing several electrodes positioned precisely over the regions of the brain that dictate movement. The electrodes detect brain signals and transmit them to the suit.
If the cap moves, the electrodes can miss the signals and the suit could stall. That posed a problem for the Walk Again team. The patient needed to wear a helmet for the demonstration but the protective gear couldn’t rub against the electrode cap. “It’s important those electrodes stay in place, but we also need to protect the patient,” Rudolph said. The team decided it needed a custom liner to that precisely fits the patient’s head and exactly filled the space between the cap and helmet. Much of the exoskeleton was created using 3D printing. So, when Rudolph toured CSU’s I2P lab and saw the staff’s expertise in 3D design, he challenged David Prawel, the lab’s director, and his staff to come up with a design for the Walk Again helmet liner. “(The liner) and components to attach sensors were pieces we hadn’t addressed yet and although it is a small part of the overall project, it’s very important,” Rudolph said. “CSU is developing an expertise in 3D printing and design and this project was a good way to tap into that.”
Designing a Liner
Prawel started working with Walk Again researchers in December, talking to them via conference calls and Skype about their specifications. The team wanted the liner to be soft, flexible and comfortable to wear and also provide easy access to the electrodes so they could be adjusted as needed. The liner must fit preciely over the electrode cap and sit flush inside the helmet since any movement could disrupt the communication pathway of the brain waves to the robotic suit. And, because each person’s head is different, the liner has to be a custom fit.
“We designed the liner from scratch,” Prawel said. “I’ve never seen anything out there like this.”
Prawel and his staff spent months testing numerous designs based on 3D scans of the patients’ heads and researching potential materials. They finally settled on a rubber-like polymer that is flexible, durable and can be 3d printed at the required precision. “This is not a one-size-fits-all project,” Prawel said. As the demonstration nears, the CSU team is refining the liner design, printing samples and sending them to Brazil to be tested. They also are creating custom brackets that mount LED sensors on the helmet to provide feedback to the patient on how well he is controlling the exoskeleton. “We are working around the clock to get our piece done,” Prawel said. “It’s very exciting to be part of such a significant – and life-changing – project.”
Spawning New Research
Rudolph hopes the Walk Again project spawns greater interest in neurotechnology and neuroengineering at CSU and in the region. He believes this rapidly growing field aligns with areas of research in which CSU is already strong, including occupational therapy, exercise physiology, neuroscience, biomedical engineering and rehabilitative medicine. Rudolph has engaged CSU researchers and also invited prominent scientists to campus to spark potential collaborations. Some experts are more local, including researchers and therapists from Denver’s famed Craig Hospital, while others such as Regis Kopper, director of Duke University’s immersive virtual reality environment (DiVE), hail from much farther away. Kopper recently presented on the benefits of 3D immersive systems, which were used to train the Brazilian patients participating in the Walk Again Project. “I look at this as an area where CSU can have a real impact,” Rudolph said.
A Transformative Moment
In the meantime, Rudolph continues to travel to Brazil, where the Walk Again team is working around the clock to get one of the eight patients selected to participate ready for the worldwide demonstration on June 12. Though some have criticized the project for giving paralyzed individuals false hope that these exoskeletons will soon be available for them, Rudolph still believes it will be a transformative moment for the world. He has seen the pure joy – and hope – on patients’ faces as they have practiced with the exoskeleton. He believes the demonstration will infuse the same emotions in the millions who tune in to watch.
“When you see people’s faces when they take their first steps and experience walking again for the first time, it’s just amazing and humbling,” he said.
What is the I2P Lab?
Colorado State University opened the Idea-2-Product Laboratory in 2013 as a public-access 3D printing facility for rapid-cycle product design and development. Entrepreneurs and companies can learn to operate the 3D printers or contract with lab staff to complete projects. This donor-funded laboratory is located in the basement of the Engineering Building on the CSU campus. You can support CSU’s Idea-2-Product Laboratory by making a donation.