A man paralyzed a dozen years ago now can walk, simply by thinking about it
Doctors implanted a device that can read Gert-Jan Oskam’s brainwaves and sends instructions to his spine to move the right muscles, The Guardian reported.
“For 12 years I’ve been trying to get back my feet,” Oskam, 40, said during a news conference on Tuesday. “Now I have learned how to walk normal, natural.”
“For 12 years I’ve been trying to get back my feet,” said Gert-Jan Oskam, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since 2011. “Now I have learned how to walk normal, natural.” https://t.co/tBNlEt7Sds— NYT Science (@NYTScience) May 25, 2023
In a study published on Wednesday in the journal Nature, Swiss researchers wrote about implants that gave Oskam a “digital bridge” between his brain and spinal cord, bypassing injured sections, The New York Times reported.
“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 spinal cord specialist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology who helped lead the research, told reporters.
The discovery allowed Oskam to stand, walk and ascend a steep ramp, assisted only by a walker, according to the Times. The implants were inserted more than a year ago, and Oskam has shown improvement, walking with crutches even when the implants are switched off.
“I feel like a toddler, learning to walk again,” Oskam told the BBC. “It has been a long journey, but now I can stand up and have a beer with my friend. It’s a pleasure that many people don’t realize.”
“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 spinal cord specialist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, who helped lead the research, said at the press briefing.
Oskam, who is from the Netherlands, was living in China in 2011 when he was involved in a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed from the hips down, the Times reported.
Jocelyne Bloch, of Lausanne University, is the neurosurgeon who carried out the delicate surgery to insert the implants, the BBC reported. She told the news organization that it was her team’s goal to get the implant working as soon as possible.
“The important thing for us is not just to have a scientific trial, but eventually to give more access to more people with spinal cord injuries who are used to hearing from doctors that they have to get used to the fact that they will never move again,” Bloch said.
Paralysed man able to walk using implant that reads brainwaves – video https://t.co/h2X6fU0XmS— The Guardian (@guardian) May 24, 2023
The device does not produce swift, smooth strides, The Guardian reported. However, Oskam said the implant allowed for more natural movements. The signals to the implants stimulate muscles needed to flex the hip, knee and ankle.
Oskam said he can walk at least 330 feet on certain days, CNN reported. He also can stand without using his hands for a few minutes.
Researchers first implanted electrodes in Oskam’s skull and spine, according to the Times. The team then used a machine-learning program to observe the parts of the brain lit up as he tried to move different parts of his body. Researchers then used another algorithm to connect the brain implant to the spinal implant. That sent electrical signals to different parts of Oskam’s body, sparking movement, according to the newspaper.
The treatment is invasive and requires several operations and hours of physical therapy, the Times reported. It does not fix all spinal cord paralysis, but it is a start and a cause for optimism, researchers said.
“While there is still much to improve with these technologies this is another exciting step on the roadmap for neurotechnology and its role in restoring function and independence to our spinal cord injury community,” Harvey Sihota, the chief executive of the British charity Spinal Research, told the BBC.
“It was quite science fiction in the beginning for me, but it became true today,” Bloch told reporters.