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Electronic implant helps paralysed man walk again in historic first

The revolutionary wireless device, which reads brain waves and sends instructions to the spine to move the right muscles, has allowed him to regain his natural mobility simply by thinking about it.

In 2011, Gert-Jan Oskam was in a motorcycle accident that left him paralysed from the waist down. Now, thanks to revolutionary new technology, neuroscientists have given him control over his lower body again.

‘For 12 years I’ve been trying to get back on my feet,’ he said in a press briefing. ‘I have learned how to walk normally, naturally.’

In a study published in the journal Nature, Swiss researchers detailed the functionality of the device, which in short provides a ‘digital bridge’ between Oskam’s brain and spinal column, bypassing any injured sections.

This has allowed him to stand, walk, climb stairs, and ascend a steep ramp with only the assistance of a walker.

Over a year after the implant was inserted, he has retained these abilities, and has actually shown signs of neurological recovery, walking with crutches even when the implant was switched off.


‘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,’ explained Professor Grégoire Courtine at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), which runs a longstanding programme to develop brain-machine interfaces to overcome paralysis.

‘The system can capture the thoughts of Gert-Jan and translate those thoughts into stimulation of the spinal cord to re-establish voluntary leg movements.’

The system, which (despite being encouraging) is still at an experimental stage, works by electronically transmitting Oskam’s thoughts to his legs and feet via a second implant in his spine.

Using wireless signals, it reconnects the brain with muscles that are rendered useless when spinal cord nerves are broken.

This varies from a previous trial, in which Oskam was linked to a computer that sent recreations of the rhythmic steps of walking to his spine, though the movement was quite robotic and had to be triggered by a button or sensor.

Scientist t monitoring brain

In this update, electrodes are installed on Oskam’s brain that detect neural activity when he tries to move his legs.

The readings are then processed by an artificial intelligence decoder that turns them into pulses, which are sent to further electrodes in the spine, activating nerves and muscles to produce the intended movement.

This algorithm is able to account for slight variations in the direction and speed of each muscle contraction or relaxation and because the signals are sent every 300 milliseconds, Oskam can quickly adjust his strategy based on what works and what doesn’t. It also appears to boost rehabilitation.

‘It’s more than 10 years after the spinal cord injury,’ Prof Courtine said.

‘Imagine when we apply the digital bridge a few weeks after spinal cord injury. The potential for recovery is tremendous.’

Graphic showing how implants in the brain and spine can help relay a signal to nerve cells in the legs

According to the research, the operation to help Oskam regain his natural mobility involved surgeons cutting two circular holes on each side of his skull, 5cm in diameter, above the regions of the brain where movement is controlled.

They then inserted two disc-shaped implants to two sensors attached to a helmet on his head.

‘I felt before that the system was controlling me, but now I am controlling it,’ said Oskam, referring to the previous computer-based project.

‘Seeing him walk so naturally is so moving,’ said Prof Courtine, whose ultimate aim is to miniaturise the technology and commercialise it so it can be used in people’s day-to-day lives.

‘It is a paradigm shift in what was available before.’