A 40-year-old man, paralysed since 2011, can now stand and walk thanks to a device implanted in his brain that can read his ‘thoughts’ and instruct his spine to move the muscles in his legs.
Gert-Jan Oskam met with a cycling accident in China 12 years ago and was told that he would never be able to walk for the rest of his life.
“A few months ago, I was able, for the first time after 10 years, to stand up and have a beer with my friends,” Mr. Oskam toldThe Guardian.
Mr. Oskam, from the Netherlands, has been able to climb stairs and walk more than 100m since the device was implanted.
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The implant has been designed by an international team of neuroscientists who aim to restore the connection between the brain, spinal cord and muscles that is interrupted during a spinal injury.
For Mr. Oskam, the new surgery was an upgrade from the previous trial where a system recreated the repeated motion of walking by sending signals from a computer to his spinal cord.
The new implant will now help Mr. Oskam control the signals instead of the signals controlling his movement.
It translated the thoughts of Mr. Oskam into signals for the spinal cord and stimulated the muscles needed to re-establish leg movements voluntarily. Put simply, the act of standing and walking was initiated by thinking those thoughts.
“What we’ve been able to do is re-establish communication between the brain and the region of the spinal cord that controls leg movement with a digital bridge,” Prof. Grégoire Courtine, one of the lead researchers in the study, was quoted as saying by The Guardian.
The device was implanted via electrodes on the brain. These detected neural activity whenever Mr. Oskam wanted to move his legs. The readings were then run through an algorithm that converted them into pulses and were sent further down his spine.
The implant has made it much easier for Mr. Oskam to produce natural movements as opposed to its predecessor, which produced more robot-like movements and had to be operated by a button or a sensor.
The device has also been shown to help with rehabilitation.
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Prof. Courtine thinks that re-establishing the connection between the brain and spine will help patients to regenerate some spinal nerves.
Case in point, Mr. Oskam, who still retained some of the nerves in his spine. After over 40 training sessions, he managed to regain some control over his legs even while the device was turned off.
The researchers also think that the wireless digital bridge will help stroke patients and paralysed people with motor functions such as moving arms and legs, walking and controlling other bodily functions, which are often associated with spinal injury such as the bladder.
Due to their complexity compared to walking, arm and hand movements may be more challenging.
Researchers are also hopeful that other patients with more recent injuries may be able to see better results. “It’s more than 10 years after the spinal cord injury [for Mr Oskam]. Imagine when we apply the digital bridge a few weeks after spinal cord injury. The potential for recovery is tremendous,” Prof. Courtine said.