Fountain, Colo. (CBS4) The rotating engine of a race car outside Fountain on Wednesday morning was the sound of a major breakthrough in a technology that could one day change the lives of people facing mobility challenges. The man behind the wheel of an 850-horsepower NASCAR Cup race car was German Aldana Zuniga of Miami. Although paralyzed from the waist down, he used a microchip implanted in his brain to lead lap after lap.
“It’s a great experience. Since my accident, I haven’t been able to move under my waist, so this is my first time driving a car,” said Zuniga.
Nine years after a car crash that changed his life, Zuniga used his thoughts to drive on Wednesday. It’s a technology breakthrough pioneered by a team led by Dr. Scott Falsey, a Colorado neurosurgeon at Health One False’s Institute of Spinal Cord Injury. The group also included electrical engineer Dr. Harry Derren and Kevin Davis of the Miami Paralysis Project at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
For more than a year, they and others worked tirelessly so that Zuniga could communicate between a tiny chip in his brain and a computer in the car.
“It picks up the electrical changes on this electrode, and transmits it through a cable under his skin to a small computer processor,” Falsey said.
“When the computer recognizes the specific fingerprint, it knows it’s sending the signal to the computer in our race car and that computer knows it’s sending it to the throttle and turn on the accelerator,” Falsey said.
For now, the technology allows Zuniga to use his ideas to start the throttle and maintain a steady pace. He can steer with a specialized helmet that records his head movement, as well as slow down with a tube attached to the helmet known as a sip-n-puff insert.
Because of all of that, a task that was once unthinkable is now possible with focus and practice.
“It’s unbelievable to think about being in the car, especially at this speed. To be in it and see how smoothly you go down the track and it responds to what you think, it’s incredible,” Zuniga said.
According to Falci, the future possibilities for this technology are quite exciting.
“Our goal is not to get race car drivers out of patients with spinal cord injuries, but to actually apply this to real-world situations,” Falsey said.
“We can use this potential to drive an electric wheelchair, a golf cart, control a robotic arm, control an exoskeleton device, and control an implantable medical device. Once we develop that science, that science can be used for all kinds of systems.”
It’s the finish line that Zuniga can’t wait to help cross.
“Technology is evolving, so we have to help do our part in it and make it available to everyone,” Zuniga said.
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