A paralysed man has regained the ability to walk smoothly using only his thoughts for the first time, researchers said on May 24, with two implants that restored communication between brain and spinal cord.
Gert-Jan Oskam has been paralysed in his legs for more than a decade after suffering a spinal cord injury during a bicycle accident. Now, with a combination of devices, the 40-year-old Dutchman has gained control over his lower body again. With the new system, he can now walk “naturally”, take on difficult terrain and climb stairs, said a study published in the journal Nature.
The advance is the result of more than a decade of work by a team of researchers in France and Switzerland. Last year, the team showed that a spinal cord implant, which sends electrical pulses to stimulate movement in leg muscles, had helped three paralysed people to walk again. However, the patients needed to press a button to move their legs each time.
In the latest development, the spinal implant is combined with the new technology, brain-computer interface, which is implanted above the part of the brain that controls leg movement. The interface – designed by researchers at France’s Atomic Energy Commission – uses algorithms based on artificial intelligence methods to decode brain recordings in real time. This allows the interface to work out how the patient wants to move their legs at any moment. The data is transmitted to the spinal cord implant via a portable device that fits in a walker or small backpack, letting patients move around without help from others. The two implants, thus, build a “digital bridge” and overcome the disconnect between the spinal cord and brain.