“Digital bridge” between mind and backbone permits paralyzed man to stroll once more

Over a decade ago, Gert-Jan Oskam was left paralyzed in a bicycle accident after suffering a spinal cord injury. Thanks to an innovative brain-spine interface (BSI) developed by a team of Swiss neuroscientists, he can now stand and walk again.

In order to walk, the brain must send a command to the region of the spinal cord responsible for controlling movement. But a spinal cord injury interrupts this communication.

“Our idea was to reestablish this communication with a ‘digital bridge’, an electrical communication between the brain and the still intact region of the spinal cord,” said Professor Grégoire Courtine, one of the lead neuroscientists on the project.

To do this, the team used brain-computer interface (BCI) technology to create a wireless interface between the brain and spine that converts thoughts into actions. As a result, Oksam can now stand, walk, and climb stairs naturally just by thinking about it.

Oskam goes with the digital bridge at the University Hospital of Lausanne. Credit: EPFL/Jimmy Ravier

To build this digital bridge, two electronic implants in the brain detect neural activity when Oskam wants to move its legs. These signals are then relayed to a processing unit that he wears as a backpack. A specially developed algorithm decodes them and sends them as instructions to another electronic implant that is placed in the spinal cord regions and controls leg movement. This implant acts as a neurostimulator, which in turn stimulates the muscles to move.

Oskam underwent two surgeries and around 40 rehabilitation sessions to regain voluntary mobility in his legs. “The most surprising thing, I think, happened after two days,” he said in an interview. “Within five to ten minutes, I was able to control my hips.”

Interface between the brain and spine in paralysis Oskam goes for a walk with scientists. Photo credit: CHUV/Gilles Weber

It should be particularly emphasized that Oskam can also cover short distances with crutches without the device. Researchers believe the device not only improved his sensory and motor perceptions, but also helped develop new neural 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 could also provide promising results for stroke-related paralysis.

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), together with project partners ONWARD Medical and CEA, has received funding from the European Innovation Council (EIC) to develop a commercial version of the digital bridge and make the technology available worldwide.

The BSI study can be found here.

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