A new study published in Nature reveals a miraculous achievement of science: a paralyzed man can walk naturally again with the help of brain and spine implants that bypass his spinal cord injury. The implants connect his brain signals to his leg muscles, allowing him to control his movements voluntarily.
Gert-Jan Oskam, 40, was paralyzed from the hips down after a motorcycle accident in 2011. He had lost hope of ever walking again. He had tried other treatments, such as electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, but they did not restore his natural walking ability. He still felt a disconnect between his mind and body.
In 2022, he underwent a surgery to implant a device called Brain-Spinal Interface System (BSIS) in his brain and spine. The device consists of two parts: a wireless electrode array that records brain activity from the motor cortex, and a wireless stimulator that delivers electrical pulses to specific spinal cord segments. The device uses artificial intelligence to decode the brain signals and translate them into stimulation patterns that activate the leg muscles.
The researchers tested the device on Mr. Oskam for over a year. They found that he could stand, walk and climb a ramp with only the assistance of a walker. He could also adjust his speed and direction according to his intentions. He reported feeling more natural and comfortable with his movements.
Mending Bodies and Restoring Hope
But that’s not all. The researchers observed signs of neurological recovery in Mr. Oskam. He could walk with crutches even when the device was switched off, suggesting that some neural connections were restored. He also regained some sensation and muscle strength in his lower limbs.
The study is the first to demonstrate that a brain-spine interface can restore natural walking ability in a paralyzed person. The researchers hope that the device can be improved and applied to other patients with spinal cord injuries.
“This is a major breakthrough for people with paralysis,” said Grégoire Courtine, a spinal cord specialist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, who co-led the study. “We have shown that we can reconnect the brain and the spinal cord, and restore voluntary movement.”
Jocelyne Bloch, a neuroscientist at the University of Lausanne who performed the surgery, said: “This is a very exciting moment for me and for Gert-Jan. He has been very brave and motivated throughout this journey. He has shown us what is possible with this technology.”
Mr. Oskam said he was grateful for the opportunity to participate in the study. He said he hoped that his experience would inspire other people with paralysis.
“I have learned how to walk normal, natural,” he said. “It feels like I have my life back.”