In a groundbreaking medical trial, a 40-year-old Dutch man named Gert-Jan Oskam, who had been paralyzed following a cycling accident in China, has regained the ability to walk using electronic brain implants.
This remarkable achievement, which was the product of collaboration between Swiss researchers and France’s Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), represents a significant advancement in neuroscience and biomedical engineering.
Gert-Jan Oskam’s Journey to Walk
Oskam’s devastating accident occurred more than a decade ago. Despite regaining some mobility in his hands, he was unable to walk. He contacted Dr. Henri Lorach, head of the Brain Spine Interface Unit at Lausanne Hospital, in 2017 to participate in the experimental trial.
“Over time, Gert-Jan regained some mobility, notably in his hands, but it was impossible for him to walk. He contacted us in 2017 and took part in our trial in Switzerland,” Lorach told RFI.
Now, Oskam can traverse difficult terrain and even climb stairs, a testament to the success of the trial and the technologies involved. The independence regained through this advancement has been life-changing for him.
A ‘Digital Bridge’ Between Brain and Legs
The technology that has made this possible relies on a system of electronic implants, one in the brain and another around the spinal cord. These implants create a ‘digital bridge’. They reestablish the severed connection between Oskam’s brain and legs.
The brain implant gathers Oskam’s movement intentions. It wirelessly transmits these signals to a portable computer. Researchers at the CEA developed algorithms that decipher these signals. The portable computer decodes these signals using the algorithms. The decoded signals then go to the spinal cord implant. The spinal cord implant turns them into electrical signals. These electrical signals then stimulate Oskam’s leg muscles to move as intended.
Professor Jocelyne Bloch of Lausanne University, who carried out the operation to implant these devices in July 2021, explains the key difference between this system and previous spinal implants. “Now, Gert-Jan can just do what he wants – when he decides to make a step, the stimulation will kick in as soon as he thinks about it,” she said.
A Significant Development with Further Potential
The success of this trial is a monumental step forward in neuroscience. It shows the potential of voluntary muscle control through neurotechnology. However, it’s important to remember that this technology is still in its experimental stages. It is currently expensive and bulky, which restricts its availability to a wider population.
Lorach acknowledges these limitations but is optimistic about the technology’s future: “We now have a much better idea of how to calibrate the system, how to optimize it. Thanks to this trial, we’ll be able to reduce the cost and offer it to more people,” Lorach says. The team’s aim is to refine the technology to make it more user-friendly and compact, so it can be used 24/7 by everyone.
Professor Grégoire Courtine of the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne (EPFL), who led the project, was visibly moved by the results. “Seeing him walk so naturally is so moving,” he said. “It is a paradigm shift in what was available before”.
Aiming for Widespread Application
The eventual goal is to miniaturize the technology for more widespread use. Prof Courtine’s spin-out company, Onward Medical, is already working on improvements to commercialize the technology, making it feasible for day-to-day use.
“Gert-Jan received the implant 10 years after his accident. Imagine when we apply our brain-spine interface a few weeks after the injury. The potential for recovery is tremendous,” Prof Courtine concluded.