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25th May 2023

Paralysed man able to walk again in massive scientific breakthrough

Steve Hopkins

He was able to stand up and have a beer with friends

Gert-Jan Oskam was told he would never walk again after breaking his neck in a cycling accident in 2011.

But thanks to science, the 40-year-old is now able to walk and stand.

Doctors implanted a device that reads his brain waves and sends instructions to his spine to move the right muscles.

Since having the operation, Oskam has managed to walk more than 100 meters at a time and even climb stairs.

He’s even managed to “stand up and have a beer with my friends” which he said “represents a significant change in my life”.

Oskam’s story was recently published in the journal, Nature, in an article titled, ‘Walking naturally after spinal cord injury using a brain-spine interface’.

It notes: “The digital bridge enabled him to regain natural control over the movement of his paralysed legs, allowing him to stand, walk, and even climb stairs.

The ‘digital bridge’ is the latest from a team of neuroscientists in Switzerland who are developing brain-machine interfaces to overcome paralysis. The project aims to use wireless signals to reconnect the brain with muscles rendered useless when spinal cord nerves are broken.

The Guardian noted that in a previous trial, Oskam tested a system that recreated the rhythmic steps of walking by sending signals from a computer to his spinal cord.

It helped him take several steps, but they were robotic and a button or sensor had to be used to take them.

In the latest trial, professor Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon at Lausanne University hospital, installed electrodes on Oskam’s brain that detect neural activity when he tries to move his legs.

The reading is then turned into pulses before being sent to electrodes in his spine where nerves switch on muscles and produce movement.

Professor Grégoire Courtine at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne explained: “What we’ve been able to do is re-establish communication between the brain and the region of the spinal cord that controls leg movement with a digital bridge.”

He said the system could “capture the thoughts of Gert-Jan and translate those thoughts into stimulation of the spinal cord to re-establish voluntary leg movements”.

While the device does not produce smooth strides, Oskam told Nature, it allowed for more natural movements.

The device also appeared to help with rehabilitation, with Oskam finding that he regained some control over his legs, even when the decide wasn’t on.

Cortine noted that Oskam’s successes were happened 10 years after his accident, so “imagine when we apply the digital bridge a few weeks after spinal cord injury. The potential for recovery is tremendous.”

Read more about the breakthrough here

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