A groundbreaking medical achievement has allowed a paralyzed man to walk again by simply thinking about it.
Gert-Jan Oskam, a 40-year-old Dutch man paralyzed in a cycling accident 12 years ago, underwent a revolutionary procedure involving electronic brain implants.
These implants wirelessly transmit his thoughts to his legs and feet via a second implant on his spine. Though still in the experimental stage, this innovative system has been hailed as ‘very encouraging’ by a leading UK spinal charity.
Mr. Oskam expressed his joy to The BBC stating, “I feel like a toddler, learning to walk again.”
He can now stand, climb stairs, and even enjoy a beer with friends. The procedure, detailed in the journal Nature, was led by Swiss researchers, with Prof Jocelyne Bloch of Lausanne University as the neurosurgeon performing the delicate surgery.
Prof Bloch emphasized that the system is currently in the early stages of basic research and will take many years before it becomes available to paralyzed patients.
However, the ultimate goal is to move the technology from the lab to the clinic as soon as possible.
The researchers aim to provide greater access to individuals with spinal cord injuries, challenging the notion that they will never regain mobility.
The procedure involved the insertion of disc-shaped implants into Gert-Jan’s brain, allowing wireless transmission of brain signals to sensors attached to a helmet.
These signals were then translated into instructions to move leg and foot muscles through a second implant connected to his spinal cord.
With a few weeks of training, Gert-Jan could stand and walk with the help of a walker. His movement, albeit slow, is smooth and marks a significant advancement in restoring mobility.
The brain implants expand on previous work by Prof Grégoire Courtine, who used spinal implants to restore movement.
Patients who received the spinal implant earlier achieved impressive results, but their walking motion appeared robotic and pre-programmed. They also had to synchronize their movements with a computer and reset when out of sync.
The technology is currently experimental and bulky, Gert-Jan and other patients use it for limited periods as part of their recovery. Muscle training during these sessions has restored movement even when the system is turned off, suggesting possible nerve regeneration.
The long-term goal is to miniaturize the technology for everyday use. Prof Courtine’s company, Onward Medical, is working on improvements to commercialize the technology and enable its integration into people’s daily lives.