Gert-Jan Oskam, a 40-year-old man from the Netherlandscan walk for the first time in 12 years.
Oskam, who was paralyzed after a bicycle accident in 2011, is learning to walk again thanks to a ‘brain-spine interface’ implanted in his body. The wireless electronic implants create a direct neurological connection between Oskam’s brain and spine to decode his thoughts and convert them into commands to move his legs and feet.
The results are a medicine first, and the success was published in Nature magazine on Wednesday.
Paralyzed man walks again thanks to brain and spine implants
With the implants, Oskam was able to regain natural control over the movement of his legs and was now able to stand, walk and even climb stairs. While most people certainly take this ability for granted, Oskam is particularly excited now standing at a bar drink with his friends.
“This simple pleasure represents a significant change in my life,” Oskam said in a press release from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the Swiss university that led the project.
“In order to walk, the brain must send a command to the region of the spinal cord responsible for controlling movement,” said Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist and professor at EPFL. “When you have a spinal cord injury, that communication is cut off. Our idea was to restore this communication with a digital bridge.”
Oskam underwent two surgeries – one on the brain and another on the spinal cord – to insert the implants. In 2021, Oskam’s surgeons performed a craniectomy, creating two circular incisions on either side of his skull to insert two disc-shaped implants.
The implants are connected to sensors on a helmet to send signals to a separate second implant in Oskam’s spinal cord, activating his nerves. Oskam must also carry an external processing unit, similar to a backpack.
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After the procedure, Oskam had to complete supervised training sessions to relearn how to walk and stand.
“Within five to ten minutes, I was able to control my hips,” he said.
Hoping to see more exercise on the horizon, Oskam trained for several weeks until he could stand and walk with a walker.
Now Oskam can Walk at least 100 meters Standing for several minutes most days without holding on to any surface or structure, according to CNN.
In other equally rare cases, implants and targeted electrical impulses have made this possible for a few paralyzed individuals regain some mobility. However, the system used by Oskam is the first of its kind, as it features both brain and spinal implants and allows for smoother, less robotic movements. Unlike others, Oskam can hypothetically navigate different terrains without having to stop and reset its system.
The system is still in the experimental stage and is not generally available. Researchers said it will be many years before such treatment is potentially offered to other patients with paralysis or the effects of stroke – but the implications for those with mobility impairments are huge.
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