Paralyzed Man Walks Again With Brain Implants

Paralysis may not be the end of movement in the near future thanks to recent studies involving brain and spinal cord implants in a paralyzed patient

  • Paralyzed Dutchman can walk again with ease due to brain-spinal cord implants.
  • He easily able to walk in a fluid rhythm, climb stairs, and walk around obstacles
  • The technology is still primitive and under testing, hence not available to the masses
  • The technology is too bulky, invasive, and dangerous in its current stage

Gert-Jan Oskam, a Dutch citizen, lost his ability to walk after a 2011 cycling accident in China that injured his spine. As of this week, a paralyzed Oskam is able to perform daily tasks like climbing stairs and walking around objects with much greater ease.

Paralysis is understood to be caused by an injury to the spinal cord which interrupts the signals the brain sends to the region of the spinal cord that produces movement. This communication link was restored with a “digital bridge” to allow someone with chronic tetraplegia to stand and walk naturally. 

This “digital bridge”, or brain-spine interface (BSI), establishes a direct link between the brain signals to move a limb by recording the signals and then stimulating the region of the spinal cord responsible for that movement. These recorders and stimulators are implanted into the patient, making up the BSI. This interface proved so helpful in neurorehabilitation that Oskam regained his ability to walk with crutches even with the BSI turned off.

Spinal cord stimulation and brain interfaces are not new technology, but they have never been used in such a synergetic way. This BSI is a “real tour de force” of biomedical engineering, as said by Keith Tansey, a neurologist at the Methodist Rehabilitation Center”.

Although the results are surprisingly positive, the study is still a proof of concept with just 1 participant. These results can not predict whether BSI will work for other paralyzed patients. Some injuries completely sever the spinal cord making the bridge impossible to construct.

Oskam received spinal stimulating implants along with two other patients in 2018 under a study by Grégoire Courtine from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Jocelyn Bloch from the University of Lausanne. However, these implants had to be signalled by the patient using a button to initiate any movement in an action akin to puppeteering. The old system had to be signalled in rhythm to make the steps seamless, and even then the patient couldn’t climb stairs or easily avoid obstacles in their path.

The new system surgically implants two arrays with 64 electrodes embedded in a titanium case directly in the skull, one array on each side of the head on top of the motor cortex. The arrays record electrical signals in the brain, which are sent to a laptop in Oskam’s backpack which is then translated by an algorithm and sent to the spinal stimulators which stimulate the spinal cord in specific ways depending on Oskam’s intended movement.

BSI helping a paralyzed Gert-Jan Oskam walk again
Two brain implants are placed over the sensorimotor cortex to collect neural signals. A processing unit predicts motor intentions and translates these predictions into the modulation of electrical stimulation programs targeting the dorsal root entry zones of the spinal cord. Stimulations are delivered by an implantable pulse generator connected to a 16-electrode paddle lead.

The technology is still too bulky- making the patient carry around a laptop in their backpack and wear a bulky headset. Some patients might be scared to adopt the technology due to it being very invasive. The electrode array requires open brain surgery which is an added danger to the patient. Oskam himself had to have one of the arrays removed due to a staph infection.

A paralysed individual being able to fluidly walk again using brain implants is a marvellous achievement of biology, medical science, technology, and engineering. Although still in its primitive stages, the technology shows a ray of hope for those affected by paralysis. 

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