More than a decade after an injury left him mostly immobile, a paralyzed man is using his mind to walk again thanks to innovative technology that connects his brain and his spinal cord.
A native of the Netherlands, Gert-Jan Oskam was involved in a motorcycle accident 12 years ago while living in China that damaged his spinal cord in his neck. He was paralyzed from the hips down and partially paralyzed in the arms, according to a report by Al Jazeera.
While Oskam is excited to walk again, he is just as excited to be able to stand and share a beer at a bar with friends: “This simple pleasure represents a significant change in my life.” he said.
Oskam was treated in a hospital in Switzerlandbut researchers in the US are working on similar technology to help people with paralysis.
“Several research institutions, universities and private companies in the United States are conducting pioneering research and clinical trials in this area of brain-spinal cord interfaces to develop solutions that can improve the quality of life for people with paralysis and other neurological conditions,” Shashank Agarwal, senior decision scientist at CVS Health, told Yahoo News.
These institutions include Johns Hopkins University; DARPA, a research agency under the Department of Defense; and BrainGate, a company developing neurotechnologies, Agarwal said.
The researchers who helped Oskam publish a survey in May in the medical journal Nature, where they described the implants that provided a “digital bridge” between Oskam’s brain and his spinal cord, bypassing the damaged sections.
“We have captured Gert-Jan’s thoughts and translated these thoughts into a stimulation of the spinal cord to restore voluntary movement,” Grégoire Courtine, a spinal cord specialist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne who was one of the lead researchers , said at a press briefing reported by the New York Times.
Jocelyne Bloch, a neuroscientist who placed the implant in Oskam, added at the press briefing: “It was pretty science fiction at first for me, but it became true today.”
What researchers in the US are doing
“By establishing this digital bridge between the brain and spinal cord, the brain-spinal cord interface allows individuals with paralysis to bypass the damaged or non-functioning neural pathways and regain control of their limbs,” Agarwal told Yahoo News.
One of the US companies Agarwal mentioned, BrainGate, develops and tests medical devices aimed at restoring communication, mobility and independence to people affected by neurological disease, paralysis or limb loss.
That’s what the company says on its website that early clinical research has shown that the technology provides intuitive control of advanced prosthetic limbs and gives people with paralysis “easy control over powerful aids to movement and communication.”
It further states that BrainGate ultimately aims to “enable naturally controlled movements of paralyzed limbs.”
A deeper dive into the technology
According to Agarwal, the brain-spinal cord interface (BSI) is the technology being implemented to help Oskam walk again through the “digital bridge.”
The BSI contains a brain-computer interface that establishes direct communication between the brain and an external device, in this case the spinal cord.
“In some cases, brain-spinal interfaces involve the implantation of microelectrode arrays or neural implants directly into the brain,” Agarwal said. “These implants are designed to detect and record neural activity from specific areas of the brain responsible for movement intentions. They can pick up electrical signals from the brain’s motor cortex, where motor commands are generated.”
The neural signals are recorded, then decoded and translated into commands that can be understood by the spinal cord or motor neurons.
“Once the decoded neural signals are obtained, they are used to stimulate the spinal cord below the level of the injury,” Agarwal said. “Electrical impulses are delivered to specific areas of the spinal cord that activate motor neurons and neural circuits responsible for coordinating movement.”
According to the Times, the EPFL research enabled Oskam to stand, walk and climb a steep ramp with only the help of a walker. Video captured the amazing feat. A year later, he has retained these abilities and has shown groundbreaking signs of neurological recovery, maneuvering with crutches even when the implant was off.
“I treat many patients with spinal cord injuries. The motor problems are only the (tip) of the iceberg,” said Dr. Georgios Matis, a neurosurgeon at the University Hospital of Cologne in Germany who specializes in functional neurosurgery, told Yahoo News via direct message.
“Such patients also have chronic pain, sensory problems, and autonomic nervous system problems (blood pressure problems, bladder and bowel problems),” Matis said. “I would expect in the future that this digital bridge can help doctors treat many more problems in (spinal cord injury) patients.”
Has this worked for anyone else?
“(Oskam) is a pioneer in the field. As far as I know, his team was the first and only one with published results in such a prestigious journal,” Matis said.
Research regarding the connection of the brain to the spinal cord can be traced back to 2016, when a group of scientists led by Courtine restored a the lame monkey’s ability to walk. Another test helped a man with a paralyzed hand regain control above the.
In 2018, Courtine then led another group of scientists to help find a way to stimulate the brain through electrical impulse generators, enabling partially paralyzed people to cycle and walk.
Now with recent progresspeople regain the ability to walk, swim and cycle within a single day of treatment due to the brain stimulation and the brain-body connection device.
What does the future hold for this technology?
Researchers in the United States and abroad are seeking to strengthen the technology and improve it to the point where patients are able to fully walk and maneuver through their thoughts.
On this point, Matis added: “This is the goal, and I am convinced that we will achieve this goal in the next 10 to 20 years. It is about optimizing the algorithms that we use to: one, more accurately detect and translate the brain’s signals, and two, apply the right combination of root stimulation patterns so that the movement becomes more ‘natural.’ The role of intensive rehabilitation (which should last for years) must be emphasized!”
Cover thumbnail image: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images