Paralyzed Man Walks Again (Borg v.1)

May 26, 2023
May 26, 2023 Hal Jordan

Paralyzed Man Walks Again (Borg v.1)

Gert-Jan Oskam, a Dutch man who lost the ability to walk in 2011 due to a spinal cord injury, has experienced a significant breakthrough in his mobility. In a recent study published in Nature, an international team of researchers has developed a novel brain-spine interface that allows Oskam to regain control over his lower body movements.

Previously, Oskam relied on a small array of electrodes implanted on his spinal cord to stimulate his nerves and enable walking. However, the process was limited and often frustrating. The new technology bridges the communication gap between Oskam’s brain and lower body using brain waves. Signals indicating Oskam’s intention to walk are captured by a device implanted in his skull and transmitted to a spinal stimulator. This redirects the signal around the damaged tissue and delivers electrical pulses to the spinal cord, facilitating movement. As a result, Oskam can now walk more smoothly, navigate obstacles, and even climb stairs. He describes the experience as a shift from being controlled by stimulation to controlling the stimulation himself.

The brain-spine interface also appears to promote better recovery compared to stimulation alone. Oskam, who had some intact spinal cord connections after the accident, can now walk with crutches even when both devices are turned off. This newfound ability was previously unattainable for him.

While spinal cord stimulation and brain interfaces have been used separately in the past, this study represents a unique combination of the two approaches. Keith Tansey, a neurologist, describes it as a remarkable feat of biomedical engineering. However, it’s crucial to note that this study is a proof of concept with a single participant, and it remains uncertain if similar results can be achieved in other individuals with spinal cord injuries.

Paralyzing injuries often leave damaged connections between the brain and lower body rather than complete severance of the spinal cord. For years, scientists have sought ways to repair these impaired neural pathways. This study builds upon previous work by Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist, and Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon, who demonstrated in 2018 that spinal stimulation combined with intensive training could help people with partial paralysis walk. Oskam participated in that trial, and subsequent research showed the effectiveness of stimulation in individuals with more severe injuries.

However, spinal stimulation alone has limitations. Initiating movement requires manual activation, such as pushing a button. For Oskam, who could still lift his heel, a sensor on his foot detected this slight movement and triggered the stimulator. But the subsequent movement was automatic and lacked conscious control. Dennis Bourbeau, a biomedical engineer, likens spinal stimulation in isolation to puppeteering.

Oskam found the previous method stressful, as he had to synchronize his movements precisely to walk properly. Additionally, many daily activities like climbing stairs remained challenging. The new system aims to address these issues by providing a more seamless and controllable walking experience.

The brain interface comprises two arrays of electrodes embedded in a titanium case, surgically placed on each side of Oskam’s skull atop the motor cortex. These electrodes capture electrical signals, which are then wirelessly transmitted to a headset and a laptop in a backpack worn by Oskam. An algorithm decodes his intended movement, which is subsequently relayed to the stimulator. Depending on the desired action, the stimulator delivers specific patterns of electrical pulses. Integrating these diverse devices posed a significant engineering challenge, as they were not originally designed to communicate with one another.

The updated system enables Oskam to exercise precise control over his hip, knee, and ankle joints. After 40 training sessions, he can step, walk, stand, and even climb stairs. Remarkably, these benefits seem to persist even when the devices are turned off.


A brain implant helped a man with paralysis walk more naturally – ScienceNews

Paralysed man able to walk using implant that reads brainwaves – video – The Guardian

Paralyzed man walks naturally, thanks to wireless ‘bridge’ between brain and spine – Science

Walking naturally after spinal cord injury using a brain–spine interface – Nature


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