Paralyzed man walks again with brain-spine device

STORY: “I’m Gert-Jan Oskam. Twelve years ago, I got in an accident and I had a spinal cord injury. So I’m not able to move my legs anymore."

After a cycling accident left him paralyzed - Gert-Jan Oskam is learning to walk again.

It's thanks to a new device that connects his brain to his spinal cord... creating a so-called digital bridge.

"Within five to ten minutes I could control my hips, like the brain implant picked up what I was doing with my hips so that was the best outcome I think for everyone."

"And what we observed along the duration of this training is a digital repair of the spinal cord."

This is neuroscientist Gregoire Courtine.

"To walk, the brain must send a command to the region of the spinal cord responsible for the control of movements. When it's a spinal cord injury this communication is interrupted. Our idea was to re-establish this communication with a digital bridge, an electronic communication between the brain and the region of the spinal cord that is still intact and can control the leg movement."

In 2018, Oskam took part in a trial that showed stimulating the spine with electrical impulses could help people with spinal cord injuries walk again.

His original spinal implant has been paired with two disc-shaped implants in his skull, so that two 64-electrode grids rest against the membrane covering the brain.

Now - when Oskam thinks about walking, the electrodes on his brain relay the message to electrodes on his spinal cord - stimulating the spine.

Neurosurgeon Jocelyne Bloch details the procedure.

"We do two different surgeries. There is one surgery is at the level of the brain. We do two little craniotomy, put in electrodes in order to record the brain signal. And another surgery at the level of the spinal cord where we put electrodes on the top of the spinal cord at the place that is responsible for leg movements. So between these two there is communication, an electrical communication, a digital bridge that is then reactivated the legs."

The signal is wirelessly transmitted and decoded by a computer that Oskam wears in a backpack, which then transmits the information to the spinal pulse generator.

COURTINE: “Not only he could leverage the digital bridge in order to control his paralyzed muscle but also show a recovery of neurological function he had lost for many years, suggesting that this digital bridge also promoted the growth of new nerve connections."

After around 40 rehabilitation sessions using the brain-spine interface, Oskam had regained the ability to voluntarily move his legs and feet.

He can now even walk short distances without the device if he uses crutches.

Courtine’s team is currently recruiting three people to see whether a similar device can restore arm movements.