More than ten years ago, Gert-Jan Oskam was paralyzed in a cycling accident after suffering a spinal cord injury. Now he can stand and walk again thanks to an innovative brain-spine interface (BSI) developed by a team of Swiss neuroscientists.
In order to walk, the brain must send a command to the area of the spinal cord responsible for movement control. But a spinal cord injury interrupts this communication.
“Our idea was to restore this communication with a ‘digital bridge’, an electrical communication between the brain and the area of the spinal cord that is still intact. said Professor Grégoire Courtine, one of the lead neuroscientists on the project.
To do that, the team created a wireless interface between the brain and spine using brain-computer interface (BCI) technology that turns thoughts into action. As a result, Oksam can now stand, walk and climb stairs naturally just by thinking about it.
To create this digital bridge, two electronic implants in the brain detect neural activity when Oskam wants to move his legs. These signals are then passed on to a processing unit, which he wears like a backpack. A specially developed algorithm decodes them and sends them as instructions to another electronic implant, inserted into the regions of the spinal cord that control leg movement. This implant acts as a neurostimulator which in turn activates muscles to move.
Oskam had to undergo two surgeries and about 40 rehab sessions to regain voluntary movement in his legs. “The most surprising thing happened, I think, after two days,” he said during a interview. “Within five to ten minutes I had my hips under control.”
What is particularly striking is that Oskam can also walk short distances without the device when using crutches. The researchers believe the device not only improved his sensory and motor perceptions, but also helped develop new nerve connections.
Oksam is the only person to have tested the technology, but the research team is currently recruiting three people to investigate whether a similar device could restore arm movement. The neuroscientists believe that the BSI may also show promising results for stroke-induced paralysis.
The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), together with project affiliates ONWARD medical and CEA, have received funding from the European Innovation Council (EIC) to develop a commercial version of the digital bridge and make the technology available globally. to make.
You can find the BSI study here.