A paralyzed man regains the ability to walk smoothly using only his thoughts, for the first time.
A formerly paralyzed man can walk again – just by thinking about it – thanks to a new device that connects his brain and his spinal cord, avoiding the damage he suffered 12 years ago.
A cycling accident in 2011 left Gert-Jan Oskam, 40, with paralyzed legs and partially paralyzed arms, after his spinal cord was damaged in his neck.
But now he is back on his feet, walking with crutches thanks to a “digital bridge” between his brain and the nerves under his injury.
“Within five to 10 minutes I can control my hips, like the brain implant has taken what I’m doing with my hips so that’s the best result I think for everyone ,” Oskam said in a statement.
When he thinks about walking, the electrodes in his brain transmit the message to the electrodes in his spinal cord, which stimulates the spine.
“Now I can just do what I want. When I decide to make a move the excitement starts as soon as I think about it,” Oskam said. “This simple pleasure represents a significant change in my life.”
Thinking about walking
Oskam participated in a trial in 2018 that showed, with intensive training, the technology to stimulate the spine with electrical impulses can help people with spinal cord injuries to walk again, even after in three years, his developments improved.
His original spinal implant was paired with two disc-shaped implants inserted into his skull so that two 64-electrode grids rested against the membrane covering the brain.
Now when Oskam thinks about walking, implants in the skull detect electrical activity in the cortex, the outer layer of the brain.
“In order to walk, the brain must send a command to the region of the spinal cord that is responsible for controlling movements. If it’s a spinal cord injury this communication is interrupted,” said Professor Gregoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.
“Our idea is to re-establish this communication with a digital bridge, an electronic communication between the brain and the region of the spinal cord that has not yet been controlled and can control the movement of the leg,” said Courtine .
This signal is transmitted wirelessly and decoded by a computer that Oskam wears in a backpack, which then sends the information to the spinal pulse generator.
“So when everything is installed, the patient must first learn how his brain signals work and we must also learn how to correlate these signals with the stimulation of the spinal cord . But it is short. In a few sessions, everyone is involved and the patient begins to train,” said Professor Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon at EPFL.
After about 40 sessions of rehabilitation using a brain-spine interface, Oskam regained the ability to voluntarily move his legs and feet.
The team says that the study – published on Wednesday in the journal Nature – shows a type of voluntary movement that is not possible after spinal stimulation alone, and suggests that training sessions with the new device induces further recovery of nerve cells that were not completely severed during Oskam’s injury. .
“What we observed over the course of this training was a digital healing of the spinal cord,” Courtine said.
“He was not only able to use the digital bridge to control his paralyzed muscles, but also showed recovery in neurological function that had been lost for years, suggesting that this digital bridge also promotes the growth of new connections. on the nerves.”
He can even walk short distances unaided when he uses crutches.
Courtine’s team is currently recruiting three people to see if a similar device can restore arm movements.