Paralysed man can walk using ‘digital bridge’ to communicate again
Following an operation to implant a special device into his brain, Mr Oskam can now climb stairs and walk for more than 100 metres.
The device works by reading his brain waves and sending instructions to his spine to move the right muscles, a process known as a digital bridge.
Mr Oskam said the device meant he was able to see his friends again after a decade on the sidelines.
He told the Guardian: “A few months ago, I was able, for the first time after 10 years, stand up and have a beer with my friends. That was pretty cool. I want to use it in my daily life.”
The digital bridge is the latest innovation in neuroscience from a team of neuroscientists in Switzerland who are trying to develop brain-machine interfaces to overcome paralysis.
One of the aims of the project is to use wireless signals to reconnect the brain with muscles which have been made useless as a result of broken spinal cord nerves.
This isn’t the first trial Mr Oskam has been involved in. On a previous occasion, he tested a system that recreated the rhythmic steps of walking by sending signals to his spinal cord via a computer.
The system which has allowed Mr Oskam to regain so much mobility is enabled by electrodes implanted in his brain which detect neural activity when he wants to move his legs.
Professor Gregoire Courtine of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne said: “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 added that 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”.
As well as increasing mobility, the device could be used for patient rehabilitation. After over 40 training sessions with the implant, Mr Oskam was able to regain some control over his legs.
Professor Courtine said he believes that reconnecting the brain and spine helps to regenerate spinal nerves and allows the patient to recover some control.
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The researchers say they hope that in the future, miniaturised devices will help paralysed and stroke patients to walk again, move their hands and arms, and control other bodily functions.
The researchers said that hand and arm movements may be more complex issues to solve than walking.
Despite this, with how much Mr Oskam has improved more than 10 years after his accident, the team say patients with more recent injuries could fare even better.
Professor Courtine said: “Imagine when we apply the digital bridge a few weeks after spinal cord injury. The potential for recovery is tremendous”.
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