Paralysed man Gert-Jan Oskam walks naturally again with brain and spine implants

In the new study, which the researchers call a brain-spine interface, it uses an AI mind decoder to read Oskam’s intentions — which can be detected through electrical signals in the brain — and correlate them with muscle movements. match. The etiology of natural movement, from thought to intention to action, is preserved. The only addition, as Courtine describes it, is a digital bridge across the injured part of the spine.

“It raises interesting questions about the source of autonomy and command,” said Andrew Jackson, a neuroscientist at Newcastle University who was not involved in the study. “You continue to blur the philosophical line between what is a brain and what is technology.”

Scientists in the field have been working on the theory of connecting the brain to spinal cord stimulators for decades, but this is the first time they’ve had such success in human patients, Jackson added. “That’s easier said than done; it’s a lot harder,” he said.

“For 12 years, I’ve been trying to find my footing,” Oskam said. “Now I’ve learned how to walk normally and naturally.”Credit: Jimmy Ravier/EPFL via The New York Times

To achieve this result, the researchers first implanted electrodes in Oskam’s skull and spine. The team then used a machine learning program to see which parts of the brain lit up when he tried to move different parts of his body. This mind decoder is able to match the activity of specific electrodes with specific intentions: Whenever Oskam tries to move his ankles, one configuration lights up, and when he tries to move his hips, another configuration lights up. rise.

The researchers then used another algorithm to connect the brain implant to the spinal implant, which was programmed to send electrical signals to different parts of his body, inducing movement. The algorithm is able to account for subtle changes in the direction and speed of each muscle’s contraction and relaxation. And because signals between the brain and spine are sent every 300 milliseconds, Oskam can quickly adjust his strategy based on what’s working and what’s not. During the first session, he was able to twist his hip muscles.


Over the next few months, the researchers fine-tuned the brain-spine interface to better accommodate basic movements like walking and standing. Oskam’s gait appeared somewhat healthy and he was able to traverse steps and slopes with relative ease, even after going months without treatment. Additionally, after a year of treatment, he began to notice significant improvements in his movement without the help of a brain-spine interface. The researchers documented these improvements in weight bearing, balance and walking tests.

Now, Oskam can walk in limited fashion around his house, get in and out of cars, and stand at the bar for a drink. For the first time, he said, he felt like he was in control.

The researchers acknowledge the limitations of their work. Subtle intentions in the brain are difficult to distinguish, and while current brain-spinal interfaces are good for walking, restoring upper-body movement may not work. The treatment is also invasive, requiring multiple surgeries and hours of physical therapy. The current system does not fix all spinal palsies.

But the team hopes that further advances will make the treatment more accessible and more systematically effective. “That’s our real goal,” Courtine said, “to make this technology available to every patient in the world who needs it.”

This article originally appeared on New York Times.

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