New technology has allowed a paralyzed man to walk again using brain signals

In 2011, Dutchman Gert-Jan Oskam learned he would no longer walk after breaking his neck in a motorcycle accident in China. However, new research, as reported in the journal Nature, has helped Oskam regain mobility in his lower half with the help of technology.

Electrode implants in his brain allow Oskam to send mental signals into an algorithm that turns them into impulses. The pulses are then sent to electrodes that have been inserted into his spine to activate nerves and wake up his muscles to create movement.

“We captured Gert-Jan’s thoughts and translated those thoughts into spinal cord stimulation to restore voluntary movement,” Grégoire Courtine, spinal cord specialist at the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne and principal investigator on the study, said at a press briefing, according to the New York Times.

The brain-spine interface, as the researchers call it, has given Oskam more control than any other study or physical therapy he has ever participated in.

Previously, Oskam was part of a study led by Courtine that used technology to stimulate nerves in the spine and improve mobility in people with spinal cord injuries. After three years, Oskam’s improvements plateaued.

Courtine calls the brain-spine interface the “digital bridge” because it allows Oskam’s movements to be signaled by her own thoughts, making her less robotic and unnatural. After a few weeks of training, Oskam was able to walk without the aid of a walker and climb an inclined ramp with little assistance.

Oskam feels like he’s regaining control of his body, he said.

“I feel like a toddler, learning to walk again,” Oskam told the BBC. “It’s been a long trip, but now I can get up and have a beer with my friend. It’s a pleasure that a lot of people don’t realize.

The study researchers hope that this technology has the potential to help people who lack the ability to use their arms and hands, or people who have suffered a stroke.

Because of the progress Oskam made in the years after his accident, the research team believes people who have suffered more recent injuries have the potential for greater improvement.

In Oskam’s case, “it’s more than 10 years after the spinal cord injury,” Courtine said. “Imagine when we apply the digital bridge a few weeks after a spinal cord injury. The potential for recovery is huge,” he added, according to The Guardian.

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