Neural Implants Help Paralyzed Man Walk Again

After 12 years of paralysis due to a motorcycle accident in China in 2011, Gert-Jan Oskam has regained control over his lower body through a combination of physical therapy and neurological implants. These brain and spinal implants have acted as a “digital bridge,” enabling him to stand and walk, even up steep inclines, by bypassing the damaged areas of his spinal cord.

Initially, he used a walker to move around. But the treatment seems to have stimulated neurological improvement. Recently, even when the implant was turned off, Oskam has regained the capacity to walk with crutches.

“For 12 years I’ve been trying to get back my feet,” Oskam said in a press briefing on Tuesday. “Now I have learned how to walk normal, natural.”

A study published in Nature explains the technology used by researchers to create a “digital bridge” that helped with recovery. The brain-spine interface (BSI) connects implants in the brain and spine wirelessly, and uses machine learning to translate brain signals to desired movements, which are then sent to the muscles in legs affected by spinal damage. The study also outlines the limitations of this technology.

On Tuesday, Dr. Grégoire Courtine, a spinal cord specialist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, stated to the press that they were able to capture the thoughts of Gert-Jan and use them to stimulate his spinal cord, resulting in the restoration of voluntary movement.

According to the study, the BSI is a reliable tool that can be calibrated within minutes and used at home independently. It has been proven to be effective over the course of a year.

“However,” the study noted, “this recovery required wearable motion sensors to detect motor intentions from residual movements or compensatory strategies to initiate the preprogrammed stimulation sequences. Consequently, the control of walking was not perceived as completely natural. Moreover, the participants showed limited ability to adapt leg movements to changing terrain and volitional demands.”

In recent years, there have been significant developments in this field. For instance, in 2016, a team headed by Dr. Courtine achieved a breakthrough by enabling monkeys with spinal cord damage to walk. Likewise, the same year, a brain implant treatment facilitated a quadriplegic man to have restricted control over one of his hands in laboratory settings. In 2018, Courtine’s scientific team used electrical-pulse generators to simulate brain signals and enable partially paralyzed individuals to walk and ride bicycles. Recent procedures in 2022 also allowed patients to walk, swim, and cycle within a day of treatment.

Reading the nuances of certain brain signals remains a challenge, which restricts the level of precision in movements. The current technology is not considered appropriate for treating paralysis in the upper body, according to the researchers. Additionally, the therapy necessitates multiple surgeries that are invasive and requires a significant amount of physical therapy.

Oskam has experienced an improved quality of life as he can now move around his house, get into and out of cars, and stand. He stated that he now feels in control for the first time. The research team hopes to make their treatments more accessible so that more patients can benefit from them. Dr. Courtine expressed that their goal is to make this technology available worldwide for all patients who need it.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here