After 12 years, a paralyzed man regained the ability to walk with the help of electronic brain implants, through which his thoughts trigger the movement of his legs through an additional implant on the spinal cord. It is the first case of its kind and a major breakthrough in medicine.
A 40-year-old Dutch man Gert-Jan Oskam 12 years ago, he injured his spinal cord in a serious cycling accident and was left completely paralyzed. The use of new technology, which is the result of more than a decade of work by a group of researchers in France and Switzerland, enabled the Dutchman to walk even on difficult terrain and stairs.
“It’s been a long journey, but now I can get up and go out for a beer with a friend. This is a luxury that many people are not aware of,Oskam told the British BBC, adding that he felt like a toddler learning to walk again.
The operation that restored Oskam’s ability to move was performed in July 2021. Neurosurgeon Jocelyne Bloch she then cut two five-centimeter-diameter round holes on each side of his skull above the areas of the brain involved in controlling movement.
She inserted two disc-shaped implants that wirelessly transmit brain signals to two sensors attached to a helmet on his head. The researchers developed an algorithm that then translates these signals into instructions to move the muscles of the legs and feet through a second implant inserted around the spinal cord.
A “radical upgrade” to the push of a button
In an article in the scientific journal Nature, researchers point out that brain implants “a radical upgrade of the previous work“, when only a spinal implant was used to restore movement. Patients had to repeatedly press a button to move their legs using the said implant.
Oskam, who initially only had a spinal implant, said it made it extremely difficult to get into the rhythm of a natural stride.
Can the “digital bridge” reconnect?
After six months of using the new technology, the researchers also noticed that the Dutchman was able to walk with crutches for some time even when the “digital bridge” between the electronic implants was switched off. As the researcher explained Guillaume Charvetthis suggests, “that this kind of connection between the brain and the spinal cord could stimulate the reorganization of neural networks at the site of the injury“.
However, neurosurgeon Jocelyne Bloch warns that this new technique is still in the phase of basic research and that it is still many years away from being available to all paralyzed patients. “The important thing for us is not only scientific testing, but also eventually making technology more accessible to people with spinal cord injury.,” she added.