Paralyzed Man Walks Again After Computerized Brain and Spinal Cord Implants


Looking to the future: In the past, computerized care helped the wounded and disabled regain the ability to move their limbs, but a new experiment has restored a wider range of mobility for one patient. After a short calibration period, a set of implants allowed a paralyzed person to walk naturally with crutches when moving through difficult terrain.

Due to a spinal cord injury during a bicycle accident more than ten years ago, 40-year-old Gert-Jan Oskam could not walk due to limb damage. An experimental neurorehabilitation program involving electronic stimulation restored basic mobility, but his overall recovery was limited. After three years without further changes, a new trial using the brain-spine interface (BSI) dramatically improved his condition.

This setup uses a combination of hardware and software to create a wireless connection between the brain and spinal cord. BSI turns brain activity into a type of electrical signal that can regulate the leg muscles. It can help people to stand and walk again after paralysis due to spinal cord injury.

A recently published study describes brain and spinal cord implants developed at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne that helped restore the damaged connection between Oscar’s brain and the rest of his body. The wirelessly connected device includes electronic skull implants, a pulse generator attached to the spine, computer algorithms and a processor that can be carried in a backpack.

In the initial tests, Oskam successfully controlled a virtual avatar on the screen using his brain. Soon after, he was able to control the thigh muscles from a resting position after a two-minute calibration. Movements of the hips, knees and ankles soon followed.

The previous system that Oscar tested allowed him to walk on flat surfaces with a roller and only after turning on the system with motion-based stimulation. However, BSI provides more natural walking with improved interpretation of brain signals, requiring only a few minutes of calibration.

Oscar says he can now walk about 100 meters a day and independently perform a wider range of everyday tasks. He can climb stairs and overcome sloping or uneven terrain with the help of crutches. The system remained stable after almost a year of use.

The principle is similar to brain-computer interfaces, which previously gave hope for helping paralyzed people and people with amputated limbs. Last year, a Maryland patient cut and brought food to his mouth for the first time in decades, remotely controlling robotic hands with his brain. In 2020, researchers presented the interface of nerve implants, which allows people with amputated limbs to use a special prosthesis without prior preparation.


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