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