A paralyzed man is able to walk again after using a wireless “digital bridge” to re-establish communication between the brain and spinal cord.
The so-called brain-computer interface consists of two electronic implants, one each in the brain and spinal cord.
Analysis: The paralysis breakthrough is quite amazing – AI is the key
The former sits above the area of the brain responsible for controlling leg movement and decodes the electrical signals produced when we think about walking.
Likewise, another implant sits above the part of the spinal cord that controls the leg.
Working together, the scientists say the breakthrough technology “turns thought into action” – repairing broken connections between the brain and the area of the spinal cord that controls movement.
The first patient was 40-year-old Dutch engineer Gert-Jan Oskam, who injured his spinal cord in a bicycle accident while working in China in 2011.
It left him paralyzed, but within days after surgeons calibrated the implant, he noticed an improvement.
Rediscover the simple pleasures
“I think the most surprising thing happened two days later,” Mr Oskam said.
“Within five to minutes, I can control my hips.”
Since then, the patient has been able to walk, climb stairs and pass ramps after “walking long distances” training.
He also rediscovered the “simple pleasures” of standing with friends at a bar.
The implant remained effective a year later, including when Mr. Oskam was left unattended at home.
He was treated by neuroscientists and neurosurgeons at the University Hospital of Lausanne and the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.
The implant itself was developed by the French Atomic Energy Commission.
How does the technology work?
Guillaume Charvet, project leader at the council, said the implant uses “adaptive artificial intelligence” to decode the brain’s movement intentions in real time.
Once the AI identifies the relevant signals, they are translated into a sequence of electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, which activates the leg muscles and induces the desired movement.
Remarkably, the patient’s sensory perception and motor skills improved even when the digital bridge was off — allowing him to walk with a cane.
Professor Gregoire Courtine said this showed that the digital bridge not only repaired the man’s spinal cord, but also “promoted the growth of new neural connections”.
Artificial intelligence holds the key to astonishing breakthroughs
The key here is artificial intelligence.
More than a decade ago, I spent time in the lab with American researchers trying to decode the brain signals of a monkey that fed itself with a mind-controlled robotic arm.
Hundreds of signals bouncing across computer screens – it’s clear the challenge is detecting patterns in the data to gauge intent.
The Swiss researchers cracked this problem by carefully training a computer to pick out the signals that were important when Gert-Jan was thinking about a very specific muscle movement.
For one person, the technology is clearly transformative. But now it needs to be extended to more people who are paralyzed by accidents and, the researchers hope, strokes.
It won’t be cheap, so access will be an issue. Is it just the rich who benefit, or those with insurance payouts?
But that’s for the future. Breakout itself has no effect. It’s amazing. The impact on paralyzed patients is enormous.
Read Thomas Moore’s full analysis Gentlemen.
Mr Oskam is the only patient to have had the digital bridge tested, but hopes the technology could one day be used to restore arm and hand function.
It may also be used for paralysis from other causes, such as stroke.
The findings have been detailed in the journal Nature.