A paralyzed man at a hospital in the town of Sion demonstrated the device, sending a mental command to a computer in his room, which transmitted it to another computer that moved a small robot 60 kilometres away in Lausanne.
The system was developed by Jose Millan, a professor at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne who specializes in non-invasive interfaces between machines and the brain.
The same technology can be used to drive a wheelchair, Millan said.
“Once the movement has begun, the brain can relax, otherwise the person would soon be exhausted,” he said.
But the technology has its limits, he added. The brain signals can be scrambled if too many people are gathered around a wheelchair, for example.
Besides making paraplegics mobile, neuroprosthetics could be used to help patients recover lost senses, researchers said.
Professor Stephanie Lacour and her team are working on an “electric skin” for amputees, a glove fitted with tiny sensors that would send information directly to the user’s nervous system.
Eventually, researchers say they hope to create mechanized prosthetics that are as mobile and sensitive as a natural hand, Lacour said.
Other researchers at Lausanne are working on enabling paraplegics to walk again with electrodes implanted in their spinal cords.
“The goal is that after a year of training with a robotic aide, the patient will be able to walk without a robot. The electrodes would stay implanted for life,” said Professor Gregoire Courtine.
He said he is currently setting up clinical trials and hopes to run tests at Zurich’s university hospital within a year.