Scientists behind the project say it promises to significantly boost the autonomy and quality of life for the 20 per cent of people with traumatic spinal cord injuries who end up quadriplegic.
However, they say major improvements are still needed before the technology can be widely used.
Two recording devices, each including a grid of 64 electrodes, were placed either side of Thibault’s head between the brain and the skin where they could span the sensorimotor cortex.
The implants are able to communicate wirelessly with a computer, making them far safer and more practical than wired brain-machine interfaces that have been tried in the past. Over two years, the computer’s algorithm trained itself to understand Thibault’s brain waves as he tried to move an avatar around a video game on a screen.
Eventually, the AI system understood enough to allow the patient to try the motorised exosuit, which has 14 joints. With a sliding ceiling harness for safety and to help with balance, the patient walked up and down a laboratory at the University of Grenoble.
“I felt like I was the first man on the moon,” Thibault said. “I didn’t move for two years and I had forgotten what it was like to stand. I forgot I was taller than a lot of people in the room and it was very impressive.”
Until now, much of the research into improving the mobility of paralysed people has focused on electrical stimulation of muscles, using machine-brain interfaces.
An exosuit takes a radically different approach, however, bypassing the body completely.
During the walking trials Thibault, who spent two years recovering in hospital after his fall, was able to activate the machine using his brain seven out of ten times.
The patient said moving the robot arms using his brain was harder due to the greater dexterity required.
While it is not feasible to use the exoskeleton at home in its current form, he said he hoped he could take the arm home in the near future to help with everyday tasks like eating.
The next goal of the researchers is to solve the problem of walking and balancing autonomously.
The results of the trial so far are published in The Lancet Neurology.
The Telegraph, London