Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Mind-controlled exoskeleton kicks off World Cup

By Stephanie Smith, CNN
updated 8:18 AM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
  • Paralyzed patient kicks off the 2014 World Cup in an exoskeleton
  • Exoskeleton is controlled by the patient's mind
  • Neuroscientists call it a "brain-machine interface"

For more, watch Sanjay Gupta, MD on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 7:30 a.m. EDT.

(CNN) -- Perhaps the most interesting kick of the World Cup so far comes from a young adult who is paralyzed from the waist down.

Clad in a metal vest, sporting a blue cap dotted with electrodes, he kicked off the world's biggest soccer championship in an exoskeleton.

It was, according to the scientist behind the exoskeleton's kick, "meant to shock the world."

But even more shocking than the exoskeleton's first tentative steps is learning how it worked: controlled by the paralyzed patient's mind.

Let's back up.

Before there was a mind-controlled exoskeleton, there was a neuroscientist named Dr. Miguel Nicolelis who was curious about "brain storms," flurries of activity caused by neurons at any given moment.

"We have about 100 million cells interconnected in our brains," said Nicolelis, a professor of neuroscience at Duke University. "They communicate with one another through electrical signals."

Nicolelis wanted to know how brain storms generated behavior, so he began recording them.

"We wanted to understand how large populations of brain cells interact," how memories are built, how we move our bodies or how we sense the world around us, said Nicolelis.

Scientists quickly realized that decoding the alphabet of neurons in the brain meant that its language could be transmitted to devices outside the brain.

Thus began the creation of the mind-controlled exoskeleton, or what Nicolelis and his colleagues call a "brain-machine interface," a way of connecting brain tissue to artificial devices.

"We realized that there was a tremendous potential application for rehabilitation in severely paralyzed patients," Nicolelis said.

Paper-thin electrodes (that can both record and transmit neuronal information to the exoskeleton) are the conduit between the patient's brain and the exoskeleton. In the case of human patients, most of the electrodes reside in a cap that he or she wears.

The patient thinks about moving, the generated activity is translated, and that activates the exoskeleton.

"We are able to show that you can read the signals and send them to devices," said Nicolelis, adding that the devices, in turn, move according to the voluntary intention of the patient.

That is the simple explanation. What is more complicated is how brain signals, muscle movement and spinal cord activity all coalesced into that dazzling opening kick.

Nicolelis is hoping to build on what he and his team have already accomplished to create a full-body exoskeleton. That will involve recording tens of thousands of neurons simultaneously, he said.

"(One day) we'll be walking in New York and we'll see a person walking on the streets that could not walk before," he said. "I think in our lifetime we'll see that."

Part of complete coverage on
Keep track of the social buzz at Brazil 2014 with CNN's Facebook Pulse -- find out who the world is talking about.
updated 6:49 AM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
It needed 120 minutes to separate the best two teams on the planet, but Mario Gotze's sublime strike gives Germany a fourth World Cup title.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
After 64 games, some huge shocks and 171 goals scored, now it's time to play fantasy football -- who would you pick in a World Cup dream team?
updated 6:55 AM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
Germany won the World Cup, but these stats suggest that the host nation came top of the table at Brazil 2014 -- despite a crushing semifinal defeat.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
Bare bellies, an on-pitch streaker, world leaders and superstar selfies -- the World Cup final had it all.
updated 7:32 AM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
Having crushed home hopes of success, Germany prevents Brazil's worst nightmare by beating the World Cup host's South American rival in final.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
One of the joys of watching the World Cup is seeing relative unknowns come to the fore. Here are 11 players to watch at Russia 2018.
updated 5:37 AM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
Stay informed with results of the latest World Cup matches and the full schedule for the month-long tournament in Brazil.
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
In the sight of Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer, the man who would be king awaits his destiny.
updated 1:15 PM EDT, Sat July 12, 2014
Germany's semifinal demolition of World Cup host Brazil in Belo Horizonte is the game that seemingly everyone can't stop talking about.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
One of the joys of the World Cup is seeing relative unknowns come to the fore. Here are 11 players who have made their mark at Brazil 2014:
updated 12:04 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
You thought Brazil's home humiliation was bad? Check out the greatest shocks in World Cup history...