In 2011, Dutchman Gert-Jan Oskam woke up in hospital kilometres from home with paralysed legs and partially paralysed arms after his spinal cord was damaged in a traffic accident in China.
Recently researchers announced he had regained the ability to walk using only his thoughts for the first time, thanks to a game-changing “digital bridge” that restored communication between his brain and the nerves below his injury.
By using the new system Oskam can now walk “naturally”, take on difficult terrain and even climb stairs, according to a study published in the journal Nature.
Nature said the breakthrough is the result of more than a decade of work by a team of researchers in France and Switzerland.
In 2016, Oskam received a spinal cord implant that allowed him to take steps with the assistance of a walker. However, his mobility remained limited to flat surfaces. Starting and stopping also remained an issue.
Despite using the spinal cord implant stimulation for three years, Oskam hit a plateau in his recovery. It was then he became interested in using brain-controlled stimulation, the journal stated.
The latest research combines the spinal implant with new technology which saw scientists in Switzerland implanting electrodes above the part of the brain that controls leg movement and in Oskam’s spine.
The electrodes in the brain sense neural activity whenever Oskam attempts to move his legs. The interface uses algorithms based on artificial intelligence methods to then decode brain recordings in real time, the researchers said.
These are then sent in the form of pulses to the electrodes implanted in the spine. The pulses then trigger nerves and switch on muscles to allow the user’s intended movement.
The data is transmitted to the spinal cord implant courtesy of a portable backpack-like device, allowing patients to get around independently.
The journal reported that after six months of training, Oskam recovered some sensory perception and motor skills that he had lost in the accident.
He was even able to walk with crutches when the “digital bridge” was turned off, leading some researchers to suggest that the establishment of a link between the brain and spinal cord would promote a “reorganisation of the neuronal networks” at the site of the injury.
While some scientists are calling for caution, arguing that the breakthrough was not a result of taking “someone completely paralysed from lying in bed and not moving to up and walking”, however, others noted there was good reason for hope.
Despite this, researchers agree it will take many more years of research to help paralysed people walk again.
The team behind the breakthrough are now preparing a trial to study whether this technology can restore function in arms and hands. They hope the same technology can be applied to other problems such as paralysis caused by stroke.
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