Scientists create a cerebrospinal implant that allows a paralyzed man to walk

In 2011, Gert-Yan Oskam woke up in a hospital in rural China to find that she couldn’t feel her legs. He was told that he was riding his bicycle on his way to the supermarket when he had a serious accident that injured his spinal cord, resulting in paralysis of his legs and part of his arms and trunk. After being transported to a larger public hospital, he made arrangements to return to his native Holland, where he believed doctors could treat him more effectively.

Oskam was only 28 when he was injured. He was looking forward to recovering and learning to walk again to do great things with his life, like living in the three-story house he built overlooking a river.

“I thought when I got home they were going to fix me up,” Oskam, now 40, told a news conference on Tuesday. “But unfortunately, there was nothing.”

In just a few months after the accident, it was clear that Oskam would have a much tougher road ahead. Through physical therapy and rigorous exercise, he was finally able to wear his own clothes and even participate in wheelchair sports. However, his mobility was still incredibly limited.

Then, Oksam got the chance to participate in the clinical trials of an experimental device called Stimulation Movement Overground (STIMO) in 2017. Known as a cerebrospinal interface (BSI), the STIMO provided electrical stimulation to your spinal cord and into your bones and muscles. that control the lower part of the body. The idea was to stimulate the nerves that were not severed by the accident.

From that seven-month clinical trial, he was able to move and even walk – albeit very slowly – with the help of a crutch. He eventually plateaued, which led him to sign up for an even more ambitious trail that would connect STIMO to a device implanted in his brain.

Today, he can walk farther and more efficiently than ever before. The researchers behind the technology published an article on Wednesday in the journal Nature describing the BSI Oskam uses to walk that helped restore communication between his brain and spinal cord, allowing him to stand up and walk naturally. As an added bonus, Oskam was able to walk with crutches even when the device was turned off, showing that it helped restore connections and movement after his injury.

The new technology holds great promise and hope for the 5.3 million people in the United States who suffer from paralysis – and millions more around the world.

“When there is a spinal cord injury, the brain is disconnected from the spinal cord, so communication is disrupted,” said Gregoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and co-author of the study, in the Tuesday press release. fair. summary. “What we were able to do was re-establish communication between the brain and the region of the spinal cord that controls the movement of the legs with a digital bridge.”

Courtine added: “It captures Gert-Yan’s thoughts and translates them into spinal cord stimulation to restore leg movement.”

The whole system consists of a few parts. First, there is a device built into Oskam’s skull above the region of the brain that controls motor function. He then puts on a headset that contains two powerful antennas, one of which decodes and translates his brain signals to help predict his motor intentions (eg, walking, moving his leg up and down). Commands are then sent to the pulse generator inserted epidurally into his spine, zapping the nerves and allowing him to move his lower body.

BSI helped restore communication between Oskam’s brain and spinal cord, allowing him to stand up and walk naturally.

Gilles Weber

Using this system, Oskam was able to stand and walk across different terrains, including smooth floors, gravel, and even stairs. Since then, he has been able to freely use the device at home without supervision – albeit with the help of crutches along the way.

Surprisingly, the device also seems to work even when it’s turned off. This suggests that it provides some level of recovery and rehabilitation for the damaged nerves in your spinal cord.

“A unique type of neuron is activated by stimulation and also a residual brain pathway,” Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon at Lausanne University Hospital and co-author of the article, told the press. “This coactivation triggers the growth of new nerve connections.”

In addition to further refining this digital bridge to help restore walking ability, the study authors hope to develop a similar device that will be able to “decode the intention to move the arm and hand,” Henri Lorach, EPFL neuroscientist and co-author of the study said in the briefing. He added that the team is launching a three-participant clinical trial to develop this device this year.

It’s not just those who suffer from spinal injuries who can also benefit. Courtine said those with neurological disorders caused by stroke and other issues could benefit from BSI. The team hopes to “miniaturize” the system to make it even more non-invasive when incorporating it into patients.

For Oskam, however, it means he’s able to literally stand on his feet again – and even do something as simple as housework that the rest of us take for granted.

“Last week I needed to paint something and there was no one to help me,” he recalled. “So I took my walker and painted myself standing up. This helps a lot. Not just with painting, of course, but with my overall health.”

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