- wrote, Pallab Ghosh
- Title, BBC Science Correspondent
25 May 2023
In a study conducted in Switzerland, a paralyzed person was able to walk only by thinking, thanks to electronic brain implants.
40-year-old Dutchman Gert-Jan Oskam said that this method changed his life.
Oskam was paralyzed in a bicycle accident 12 years ago.
Electronic implants transmit his thoughts wirelessly to his legs and feet through a second implant in his spine.
The system is still in the experimental stage.
The UK charity Spinal Research, which leads research on spinal injuries, hailed the development as “quite encouraging”.
“I feel like a child learning to walk again,” Oskam told the BBC.
Oskam can also now stand and climb stairs.
“It’s been a long journey but now I can get up and have a beer with my friend. It’s a pleasure that many people don’t realize.”
Swiss researchers led the study, which was published in the journal Nature.
Neurosurgeon Professor Jocelyne Bloch from the University of Lausanne surgically placed the implants.
Bloch emphasized that the system is still in the research phase and many years are needed before it can be used by paralyzed patients.
But he said the team aims to get the system out of the lab and start clinical trials as soon as possible.
Harvey Sihota, CEO of Spinal Research, who was not involved in the research, described this development as “quite encouraging”, although there is still a long way to go for this technology to become generally available:
“This development is an exciting step forward because of the role of neurotechnology in the roadmap and in restoring function and independence to people with spinal cord injury.”
How was the operation done?
The operation to activate the Oskam was carried out in July 2021.
Professor Bloch drilled two 5-cm-diameter holes on either side of the skull over the areas of the brain that control movement.
He then implanted two disc-shaped implants that wirelessly transmit brain signals (Oskam’s thoughts on the act of walking) to two sensors attached to a helmet on his head.
The Swiss team developed an algorithm that translates these signals into instructions to move the leg and foot muscles through a second implant placed around Oskam’s spinal cord.
Professor Bloch intricately linked this implant to nerve endings involved in walking.
After a few weeks of training, Oskam was able to stand and walk with the aid of a walker.
His movements are “slow but fluid”, according to Professor Grégoire Courtine of the École Polytechnique Fédérale (EPFL), who led the project in Lausanne.
“It’s impressive to see him walking so naturally. It represents a paradigm shift compared to the previous situation.”
The brain implants build on Professor Courtine’s earlier work, which used only the spinal implant for remobilisation.
The spinal implant amplifies the weak signals from the brain to the damaged part of the spine and were further amplified by pre-programmed signals from a computer.
Using the same technology last year, Michel Roccati, whose spinal cord was completely severed, was able to walk again.
Both had to keep their intended gestures in sync with the computer and pause and reset when they were out of sync.
Oskam, who was just a spine implant before brain implants, now has much more control, he says.
“I felt that the system was controlling me before, but now I control it.”
These systems cannot be used continuously and are still cumbersome and experimental.
Patients use the system for an hour several times a week as part of the recovery process.
Since walking trains the muscles, some degree of movement gain is also observed when the system is turned off, indicating that damaged nerves can be regenerated.
The ultimate goal is to miniaturize this technology. Professor Courtine’s company, Onward Medical, is making improvements to commercialize the technology so people can use it in their daily lives.
“Gert-Jan had the implant placed 10 years after the accident. Imagine if we had the brain-spine connection system installed a few weeks after the injury. The potential for recovery would be enormous,” Courtine says.