In a groundbreaking medical development, a 40-year-old paralysed Dutchman started to walk again with the help of electronic brain implants.
He could not stand on his feet after a cycling accident 12 years ago.
BBC reported that his thoughts were wirelessly transmitted through electronic implants to his legs and feet through the second implant on his spine.
Though it is currently in its initial stage, it is regarded as very encouraging by a leading UK Spinal Charity.
Gret-Jan Oskam said: “I feel like a toddler, learning to walk again. It has been a long journey, but now I can stand up. It’s a pleasure that many people don’t realise.”
The research was published in the journal Nature, led by researchers from Switzerland.
Professor Jocelyne Bloch, of Lausanne University, the neurosurgeon who performed the surgery for implants, emphasised that the system was still in its stage and was many years away from being available to paralysed patients.
“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.”
Harvey Sihota is chief executive of the UK charity Spinal Research, which was not involved in the research.
“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.”
The operation to restore Oskam’s movements was conducted in 2021 in which Professor Bloch cut two circular holes on each side of his skull — 5cm in diameter — in the regions of the brain involved in controlling movement.
The two discs were inserted that wirelessly transmit brain signals — Gert-Jan’s intentions — to two sensors attached to a helmet on his head.
The researchers found that after a few weeks of training, he could stand and walk with the aid of a walker.
His movement is slow but smooth, according to Prof Grégoire Courtine of the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne (EPFL), who led the project.
“Seeing him walk so naturally is so moving,” he said, adding that “it is a paradigm shift in what was available before.”
The brain implants were built on Prof Courtine’s earlier work when only a spinal implant was used to restore movements.
Gert-Jan had only the spinal implant before he had the brain implants. He said that he now has much greater control.
The eventual aim is to miniaturise the technology. Prof Courtine’s spin-out company Onward Medical is making improvements to commercialise the technology so it can be used in people’s day-to-day lives.
“It’s coming,” said Prof Courtine.
“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.”