Paralyzed Man Walks Again With Brain and Spinal Cord Implants

The experimental technology translates the patient’s thoughts into voluntary movements

Gert-Jan Oskam walking with a walker while wearing the equipment
Gert-Jan Oskam was paralyzed in a biking accident in 2011. After rehab with an implant, he's been able to walk more than 330 feet at a time and climb stairs. CHUV / Gilles Weber

A man paralyzed in 2011 has regained the ability to stand and walk with the help of implants placed in his brain and spinal cord.

The patient, 40-year-old Gert-Jan Oskam of the Netherlands, was told he would never walk again after a biking accident, according to the Guardian’s Ian Sample. He suffered severe but partial damage to his spinal cord, which paralyzed his legs and partially paralyzed his arms, researchers write in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Now, using the implants, “we’ve captured the thoughts of Gert-Jan and translated these thoughts into a stimulation of the spinal cord to re-establish voluntary movement,” Grégoire Courtine, a co-author of the study and a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, said at a press conference, per CBS News’ Aliza Chasan.

The technology “enables natural control over the movements of his legs to stand, walk, climb stairs and even traverse complex terrain,” the study authors write. Oskam can walk more than about 330 feet at once and stand for several minutes without using his hands for support, according to CNN’s Jamie Gumbrecht and Deidre McPhillips.

“A few months ago, I was able, for the first time after ten years, to stand up and have a beer with my friends,” Oskam tells the Guardian. “That was pretty cool.”

In previous research, Courtine and other scientists have used a combination of electrical stimulation to the lower spine and physical therapy to help people who had been paralyzed regain the ability to walk. Oskam participated in this research but stopped making progress after three years.

The new technique involved placing two implants on Oskam’s brain. When he wants to move, the implants read his brain signals and send that information to sensors on a helmet-like device on his head, per BBC News’ Pallab Ghosh. A computer uses these signals to predict how Oskam intends to move, then converts his intentions into commands and sends these commands to another implant in the spinal cord. Finally, the spinal implant stimulates Oskam’s muscles according to his intended movement.

Through this “digital bridge,” the researchers re-opened a line of communication between Oskam’s brain and spinal cord, they write in the paper.

Oskam completed 40 sessions of neurorehabilitation with the technology. After a few weeks of this, he could stand and walk using a walker, according to BBC News. The earlier technology “was more of a pre-programmed stimulation” that led to robotic movements, Courtine tells Nature News’ Dyani Lewis. The new device, however, allows for smoother motions.

Oskam has also regained some control over his legs, even when he’s not using the device, writes the Guardian. Courtine suggests to the publication that bridging the gap between the brain and spinal cord has helped Oskam regenerate spinal nerves.

Harvey Sihota, CEO of the U.K. charity Spinal Research, which was not involved in the study, tells BBC News the technology still has a long way to go before becoming available to the public, but the results are “very encouraging.”

For now, though, the devices are still at an experimental stage. One risk is that the implants require invasive surgery, notes the New York Times Oliver Whang.

Next, the researchers would like to be able to make the device’s hardware, which Oskam carries in a backpack, more compact. They hope the technology can one day be used to help people regain the capacity for other movements and bodily functions.

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