It’s a technology that sounds lifted from the latest Marvel movie — a “Brain-Computer Interface Functional Electrical Stimulation (BCI-FES) System” that enables its paralyzed users to walk again.

According to a new study published Thursday in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation, however, it’s actually very much a reality, though admittedly with only one successful test subject so far.

Recruiting a man who had been paralyzed in both legs for five years, the authors hooked him up to a device that would receive electrical signals directly sent from the brain and transmit them to electrodes surrounding his knees, gifting him the ability to move them once again.

The man learned to operate the system by first wearing an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap that read his brain waves as he visualized moving an avatar in a virtual reality environment. Alongside physical therapy to strengthen his legs again, he then practiced walking while suspended 5 centimeters off the ground. On his 20th visit, he was finally able to walk, though he also utilized a system that supported his body weight and prevented him from falling. Finally, he walked only using the BCI-FES system. After 30 such trials run over a period of 19 weeks, he could successfully walk through a 3.66 meter-long course.

"Even after years of paralysis the brain can still generate robust brain waves that can be harnessed to enable basic walking. We showed that you can restore intuitive, brain-controlled walking after a complete spinal cord injury, said study author Dr. An H Do, from the University of California, Irvine, in a statement. “This noninvasive system for leg muscle stimulation is a promising method and is an advance of our current brain-controlled systems that use virtual reality or a robotic exoskeleton."

Though only a pilot study, Dr. An Do and his colleagues are hopeful they will be able to improve the capability of their technology in time.

"Once we've confirmed the usability of this noninvasive system, we can look into invasive means, such as brain implants,” said Dr. Zoran Nenadic, the study’s lead senior researcher. “We hope that an implant could achieve an even greater level of prosthesis control because brain waves are recorded with higher quality. In addition, such an implant could deliver sensation back to the brain, enabling the user to feel their legs."

The authors also note that they might be able to use a simplified version of their current system as a means of noninvasive rehabilitation for those with an incomplete spinal cord injury, meaning those who still have some feeling in their legs.  

Source: King C, Wang P, McCrimmon, et al. The Feasibility of a Brain-Computer Interface Functional Electrical Stimulation System for the Restoration of Overground Walking after Paraplegia. Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation. 2015.