A paralyzed man has for the first time regained the ability to walk smoothly using only his thoughts.
A previously paralyzed man has been able to walk again — just by thinking about it — thanks to a new device that connects his brain and spinal cord, overcoming an injury he sustained 12 years ago.
A bicycle accident in 2011 left Gert-Jan Oscam, 40, with paralyzed legs and partially paralyzed arms, after injuring the spinal cord in his neck.
But today, he’s back on his feet, walking with crutches thanks to a “digital bridge” between his brain and the nerves below his injury.
“Within five to ten minutes I was able to control my hips, like the brain implant picked up what I was doing with my hips, so this was the best result I think of all,” Oscam said in a statement.
When he thinks about walking, electrodes in his brain relay the message to electrodes in his spinal cord, stimulating the spine.
“Now I can just do whatever I want. When I decide to make a move, stimulation will kick in as soon as I think about it,” Oscam said. “This simple pleasure represents an important change in my life.”
Think about walking
Oscam was involved in an experiment in 2018 that showed, through intense training, that technology to stimulate the spine with electrical pulses could help people with spinal cord injuries walk again, although after three years, his improvements had plateaued.
The original spinal implant was paired with two disk-shaped implants inserted into his skull so that two networks of 64 electrodes rest on the membrane covering the brain.
Now when Oscam is thinking about walking, skull implants detect electrical activity in the cortex, the brain’s outermost layer.
“To walk, the brain has to send a command to the region of the spinal cord responsible for controlling movements. When it’s a spinal cord injury, that connection is interrupted,” said Professor Gregoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at EPFL, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.
“Our idea was to recreate that connection with a digital bridge, which is an electronic connection between the brain and an area of the spinal cord that is still intact and can control leg movement,” Curtin said.
This signal is transmitted and decoded wirelessly by a computer that Oskam wears in a backpack, which then transmits the information to a spinal pulse generator.
“So when everything is stabilized, the patient first has to learn how to manipulate the signals of his brain and we also have to learn how to relate these signals to stimulation of the spinal cord. Everything is connected and the patient starts training.”
After about 40 rehabilitation sessions using the brain-spine interface, Oscam regained the ability to move his legs and feet voluntarily.
The team says the study — published Wednesday in the Nature magazine It shows a type of voluntary movement not possible with spinal stimulation alone, and suggests that training sessions with the new device prompted further recovery in neurons that were not completely cut during Oscam’s injury.
“What we observed throughout the course of this training was a digital repair of the spinal cord,” Curtin said.
“Not only was he able to take advantage of the digital bridge in order to control his paralyzed muscles, but he was also shown to restore neurological function that he had lost for many years, suggesting that this digital bridge also promoted the growth of new neural connections.”
He can now even walk short distances without the device if he is on crutches.
Curtin’s team is currently recruiting three people to see if a similar device can restore arm movements.
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