[video] Paralyzed Dutch man walks again thanks to thought-controlled implants

The 40-year-old was confined to a wheel-chair for more than 10 years after a bike accident.

A team of Swiss and French scientists have developed the world’s first electronic implants that helped a paralyzed man walk again after more than a decade of confinement to a wheel-chair.

All that 40-year-old Gert-Jan Oskam from the Netherlands has to do is thinking about walking and the implant raises him up. Oskam had suffered a spinal cord injury in a bike accident in China.

The patient regained mobility over time after having the implant inserted in his body, and the hands were first to move, according to Henri Lorach, head of the Brain Spine Interface Unit at Lausanne Hospital and a key researcher in this medical trial.

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The institution said in a release that the trial started in 2017 in Switzerland, with the participation of scientists from the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in France. 

Gert-Jan Oskam, one of the patients participating in that trial, can now walk all alone over difficult terrain and even climb stairs while the results of this trial were published this week in the journal Nature

The breakthrough was also possible thanks to Professor Jocelyne Bloch of Lausanne University, who performed an operation on Oskam in July 2021.

He inserted two electronic implants – one in the brain and the other around the spinal cord – to re-establish the connection lost during the accident.

The sensors on the patient’s head wirelessly transmit his brain signals, intentions to move, from the implant to a small portable computer in a small backpack.

The new system makes use of the spinal implant that Oskam already has, and pairs it with two disc-shaped implants inserted into his skull so that two 64-electrode grids rest against the membrane covering the brain.

When Oskam thinks about walking, the skull implants detect electrical activity in the cortex, the outer layer of the brain. This signal is wirelessly transmitted and decoded by a computer that Oskam wears in a backpack, which then transmits the information to the spinal pulse generator.

The interface, designed by researchers at the CEA, uses algorithms based on artificial intelligence methods to decode the brain signals in real time. The data is then transmitted to the spinal cord implant in the form of electrical signals that in turn instruct the leg muscles to move as desired.

Unlike existing spinal implants that allow some patients to walk again, which require them to activate each motion by pressing a button, the new system is working with a mere thought.

Although Gert-Jan Oskam gets up and walks fine, there’s still a long way before gaining full mobility up to the going to jogging or lifting heavy objects. Should the technology be available ten years ago, he would have restored his normal life by now. It took him three years to achieve basic walking.