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Step into the future: Thought-controlled technology allows paralysed man to walk again

26 May 2023

In a ground-breaking development, a paralysed man has regained the ability to walk using only his thoughts, thanks to a new technology that decodes brain signals.

Image: EPFL/Jimmy Ravier
Image: EPFL/Jimmy Ravier

A traumatic spinal cord injury can result in the disruption of communication between the brain and the specific area of the spine responsible for controlling walking, leading to paralysis in the affected individual.

In cases of traumatic spinal cord injuries, the communication link between the brain and the specific area of the spine responsible for coordinating walking can be severed, resulting in paralysis. However, innovative electronic implants now offer a solution by restoring the vital connection.

Gert-Jan Oskam, a 40-year-old man from the Netherlands, was paralysed in 2011, following a cycling accident. He was told he would never walk again.

Now, 12 years later, Oskam can walk naturally, traverse difficult terrain, and even climb stairs, thanks to the help of two electronic implants.

"I feel like a toddler, learning to walk again," Oskam told the BBC. "It has been a long journey, but now I can stand up and have a beer with my friend. It's a pleasure that many people don't realise."

This achievement is the culmination of more than 10 years of collaborative research conducted by a team of engineers and scientists from France and Switzerland.

Their previous work demonstrated the effectiveness of a spinal cord implant that utilises electrical pulses to stimulate leg muscle movement, enabling three paralysed patients to regain their ability to walk.

However, the patients had to trigger leg movement manually by pressing a button, which posed challenges in achieving a natural walking rhythm.

The latest breakthrough combines the spinal implant with a brain-computer interface, an implant placed above the brain region responsible for leg movement.

The brain-computer interface utilises AI algorithms to decode real-time brain recordings, allowing it to interpret the patient's desired leg movements at any given moment. This information is then transmitted to the spinal cord implant via a portable device, which can be conveniently carried in a walker or small backpack.

Together, these two implants create a "digital bridge" that tackles the disconnect between the spinal cord and the brain caused by Oskam’s accident. The system enables Oskam to initiate leg movements simply by thinking about them.

“We have created a wireless interface between the brain and the spinal cord using brain-computer interface (BCI) technology that transforms thought into action," summarises Grégoire Courtine, Professor of Neuroscience at EPFL, CHUV and UNIL, who lead the project.

In addition to walking abilities, Gert-Jan has also experienced sensory perception and motor skills recovery after six months of training with the implant. Notably, he can even walk with crutches when the implant is deactivated, suggesting that the establishment of a brain-spinal cord link allows the reorganisation of neuronal networks at the site of the injury.

While the widespread availability of this technology is still years away, the research team is already preparing trials to explore its potential for restoring function in arms and hands. They also hope to apply the technology to address paralysis caused by stroke.

Harvey Sihota, CEO of the UK charity Spinal Research, described the development as "very encouraging". While acknowledging that there is still progress to be made, he said that achievement marks an exciting step toward utilising neurotechnology to restore function and independence for individuals with spinal cord injuries.

This game-changing achievement opens up exciting new possibilities. With ongoing advancements in the field of brain-computer interfaces, the hope for improved mobility and independence for individuals living with paralysis grows stronger.

"It's coming," concludes Professor Courtine. "Gert-Jan received the implant 10 years after his accident. Imagine when we apply our brain-spine interface a few weeks after the injury. The potential for recovery is tremendous.”

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