Gert-Jan Oskam, a 40-year-old man from the Netherlands, is able to walk for the first time in 12 years.
Oskam, who became paralyzed after a cycling accident in 2011, is learning to walk again thanks to a “brain-spine interface” implanted in his body. The wireless, electronic implants create a direct neurological link between Oskam’s brain and spine to decode and transmit his thoughts into commands to move his legs and feet.
The results are a medical first, and the achievement was published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
With the implants, Oskam has been able to regain natural control over the movement of his legs, allowing him to stand, walk and even climb stairs. Though most people certainly take the ability for granted, Oskam is especially excited to now stand at a bar to drink with his friends.
“This simple pleasure represents a significant change in my life,” Oskam said in a press release from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the Swiss university that led the project.
“To walk, the brain must send a command to the region of the spinal cord responsible for the control of movements,” said Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist and professor at EPFL. “When there is a spinal cord injury, this communication is interrupted. Our idea was to re-establish this communication with a digital bridge.”
Oskam underwent two surgeries — one on his brain and another on his spinal cord — to install the implants. In 2021, Oskam’s surgeons performed a craniectomy and created two circular incisions on either side of his skull to insert two disc-shaped implants.
The implants connect to sensors on a helmet to send signals to a separate, second implant on Oskam’s spinal cord to activate his nerves. Oskam must also wear an external processing unit, similar to a backpack.
Following the procedure, Oskam has had to undergo supervised training sessions in order to relearn how to walk and stand.
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“Within five to ten minutes, I could control my hips,” he said.
With the hope of more movement in sight, Oskam trained for several weeks until he could stand and walk with a walker.
Now, Oskam can walk at least 100 metres on most days and stand without holding onto a surface or structure for several minutes, according to CNN.
On other, equally rare occasions, implants and targeted electrical pulses have allowed a select few paralyzed persons to regain some mobility. However, the system used by Oskam is the first of its kind because it has both the brain and spinal implants, and is designed to allow for smoother, less robotic movements. Unlike others, Oskam can hypothetically navigate different terrains without having to stop and reset his system.
The system is still in the experimental stages and is not widely available. Researchers said it will still be many years before such treatment is potentially offered to other patients living with paralysis or the effects of a stroke — but the implications for those with mobility difficulties are enormous.
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