Jan 6, 2014 5:47 PM
If all goes according to plan, a paralyzed teenager will walk onto the field and kick the ceremonial first ball at the 2014 men's soccer World Cup in Brazil this coming June.
The teen's lower body will be supported by a high-tech exoskeleton. There will be electrodes placed on his or her scalp or within the brain.
When the teen thinks about walking, the electrodes will transmit the brain signals to a small computer, worn like a backpack. The computer turns those wireless commands into movement.
The demonstration is the brain child of Dr. Miguel A.L. Nicolelis, 52, the neuroscientist at the helm of Walk Again, an international collaboration that aims to use technology to overcome paralysis.
"Football is a very big deal. The World Cup is the world's largest sports competition, the ultimate sharing opportunity," he said in a call with CBS News. "We proposed to the government that instead of a regular musical or typical opening ceremony that has been done in the past, we could surprise the world by doing a scientific demonstration instead."
Growing up in Sao Paolo, Brazil, Nicolesis, like so many of his peers, developed a passion football (or, as it is known in the U.S., soccer). But he was no Pele; his future lay in neuroscience. After completing his medical degree in 1985 and a doctorate in physiology five years later, he accepted a post-doctorate position at Duke University.
As his work with mind-controlled technology that can assist paralyzed patients gained international attention, his home country was never far from his mind. In 2009, he approached officials in Brazil to suggest that Walk Again be showcased at the end of the Opening Ceremony.
"Sports can be a huge avenue to reach out to people that would never actually pay attention to science news," he said. "I always wanted to show kids in Brazil how important science can be for society."
Starting in February, a group of patients selected by the Association for Assistance to Disabled Children in Sao Paulo will be training with the technology. By May, that group will be narrowed down to three finalists. One will win the honor of delivering that first kick; two will be named as alternates.
To make the process more natural, Nicolelis' team is thinking about incorporating more sensors into the suit to monitor touch, temperature and force and deliver feedback to the user through either a visual display or vibrating rotor.
The research behind the project is backed by a variety of institutions including Duke University Center for Neuroengineering and the Technical University of Munich, among other prestigious universities from the U.S., Germany, Switzerland and Brazil.
The ceremonial kick is scheduled for the moments between the singing of the national anthems and the official start of play.
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