Paralyzed man walks again after computerized brain and spinal cord implants

Perspective: In the past, computerized assistance has helped injured and disabled people regain their ability to move their limbs, but a new experiment has restored a wider range of motion for one patient. After a short calibration period, the set of implants allowed the paralyzed person to naturally walk with crutches while moving through difficult terrain.

Due to a spinal cord injury in a bicycle accident more than a decade ago, 40-year-old Gert-Jan Oskam was unable to walk due to damage to his limbs. An experimental neurorehabilitation program involving electrical stimulation restored basic mobility, but his overall recovery was limited. After three years without further change, a new trial using the Brain-Spine Interface (BSI) improved his condition drastically.

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 leg muscles. It can help people stand and walk again after being paralyzed due to a spinal cord injury.

Recently published study describes brain and spinal cord implants developed at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, which helped repair the damaged connection between Oscar’s brain and the rest of his body. The wireless 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 initial tests, Oskam successfully controlled an on-screen virtual avatar with his brain. Shortly thereafter, 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 Oskar tried allowed him to walk on flat surfaces with a roller and only after turning on the motion-based stimulation system. However, BSI provides a more natural walking experience with improved interpretation of brain signals, requiring only a few minutes of calibration.

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oscam speaks he can now walk about 300 feet a day and perform a wider range of everyday tasks on his own. He can climb stairs and negotiate 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 offered hope of helping paralyzed people and amputees. Last year, a Maryland patient cut and lifted food to his mouth for the first time in decades, remotely controlling robotic arms with his brain. In 2020, researchers unveiled a neural implant interface that allows amputees to use a special prosthesis without prior preparation.

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