A paraplegic has regained normal control of the ability to walk by thinking, a feat achieved for the first time thanks to the combination of two technologies that allowed the restoration of the connection between the brain and spinal cord.
With the words, “I have regained some freedom,” the patient, Gert Jan – who did not want to mention his family name – summed up his feeling, as this 40-year-old Dutchman can now stand and move around in spaces of various natures and even climb stairs.
Gert suffers from a spinal cord injury at the level of the cervical vertebrae, as a result of a bicycle accident 10 years ago. Jocelyn Block, a Swiss surgeon and professor at the University Medical Center Fu, explained the results of a study published Wednesday in the journal “Nature” that the man “was initially unable to put one foot in front of the other.”
Before Gert, walking became possible again for a number of other patients who could not move their legs, but the new study showed that the Dutch man was the first to regain the ability to control the movement of his legs and the rhythm of his steps by thinking.
And it was possible to reach this achievement by combining two technologies implanted in Gert’s brain and spinal cord, according to what was explained to the French Press Agency by researcher Guillaume Charvais of the Commission for Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies, which is one of the parties participating in the project.
This was achieved as a result of 10 years of research conducted by teams in France and Switzerland.
The spinal cord protected by the spine is an extension of the brain and controls a large number of movements, and damage to the brain connection leads to the inability to implement these movements in an irreparable way.
In an attempt to address this problem, electrodes developed by the Commission for Atomic and Alternative Energy were implanted in the paralyzed patient over the area of the brain responsible for leg movements.
These electrodes allow the decoding of electrical signals generated by the brain when a person is thinking about walking. At the same time, a nerve stimulator attached to a field of electrodes was placed over the area of the spinal cord that controls movement of the legs.
Thanks to algorithms based on AI methods, movement intentions can be decoded in real time from brain recordings. These intentions are then converted into electrical sequences to stimulate the spinal cord, which in turn activates the leg muscles to achieve the desired movement.
The data is transmitted via a portable system that is placed on a treadmill or in a small backpack, allowing the patient to do so without outside assistance.
So far, a single implant that electronically stimulates the spinal cord has allowed paraplegics to walk again. But controlling this gait was not natural. What is new this time, is the digital bridge that was established between the brain and the spinal cord, which not only allowed Gert Yan to move, but also enabled him to voluntarily control his movements and their range.
“The matter is fundamentally different from what has been reached so far,” said Gregoire Courtine, a French neuroscientist and professor of neuroscience at the Federal Polytechnic School in Lausanne. He explained that “the previous patients used to walk with great effort, but now (the patient) only needs to think about walking in order to take a step.”
The Dutchman described what he went through to be able to stand again and walk for several consecutive minutes as a “long journey”, as he underwent two surgeries to place the implants.
Another important progress was recorded, as after 6 months of training, it appears that he has regained part of his sensory and motor abilities.
Guillaume Charvais of the Commission for Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies said, “These results indicate that the establishment of a link between the brain and the spinal cord would promote the reorganization of neural circuits at the level of injury.”
When asked whether this technology will be available to all who need it soon, Charvih replied that “it will take several years of research” before it is circulated. However, the teams are beginning to prepare to launch an experiment to restore the function of the arms and hands using the same technique. The researchers also hope to apply it to other clinical conditions, including paralysis caused by stroke.