In an astonishing leap forward, a paralyzed man has regained the ability to walk effortlessly using only his thoughts, thanks to groundbreaking research. The patient, known as Gert-Jan, who prefers to keep his surname private, describes this breakthrough as granting him an extraordinary sense of freedom that he had long yearned for, according to a report by AFP.
The 40-year-old Dutchman had been confined to a wheelchair for over ten years following a severe spinal cord injury sustained in a bicycle accident. However, a revolutionary system utilising two implants has now enabled him to walk with natural grace, conquer challenging terrains, and take on the daunting task of climbing stairs. This remarkable achievement, documented in the esteemed journal Nature, marks a significant milestone in the field of neuroprosthetics.
Last year, a dedicated team of researchers from France and Switzerland had made a significant stride by demonstrating that a spinal cord implant, capable of sending electrical pulses to stimulate leg muscle movement, enabled three paralyzed patients to regain the ability to walk. However, the patients had to rely on pressing a button to initiate leg movements, which hindered the natural rhythm of taking steps.
Gert-Jan, who also received the spinal implant, expressed the challenge of synchronizing his movements due to the button pressing requirement, making it arduous to achieve a truly “natural step."
All details about the fascinating transplant explained:
In a groundbreaking advancement, the latest research combines a spinal implant with an innovative technology known as a brain-computer interface. This interface, implanted above the region of the brain responsible for controlling leg movements, employs artificial intelligence algorithms to decode real-time brain recordings, as shared by the researchers.
Through this remarkable interface, developed by experts at France’s Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), the system can accurately interpret the patient’s desired leg movements in each moment, AFP said in its report. The data is then wirelessly transmitted to the spinal cord implant via a portable device conveniently housed in a walker or small backpack. This ingenious setup empowers patients, like Gert-Jan, to regain mobility without relying on assistance from others.
By effectively bridging the gap between the spinal cord and the brain that was created as a result of Gert-Jan’s unfortunate accident, these two implants form a remarkable “digital bridge." This pioneering approach holds immense promise in restoring lost mobility for individuals with paralysis, marking a significant step forward in neuroscientific research.
“Now I can just do what I want — when I decide to make a step the stimulation will kick in as soon as I think about it," Gert-Jan was quoted as saying by AFP.
After undergoing invasive surgery twice to implant both devices, it has “been a long journey to get here," he told a press conference in the Swiss city of Lausanne. But among other changes, he is now able to stand at a bar again with friends while having a beer. “This simple pleasure represents a significant change in my life," he said in a statement.
According to Gregoire Courtine, a neuroscientist from Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, the recent achievement in enabling paralyzed individuals to walk through a brain-spinal cord connection is a significant breakthrough.
Unlike previous methods, this new approach allows patients to walk with ease by simply thinking about it. During a press conference in Lausanne, Courtine highlighted the remarkable recovery of sensory perception and motor skills in a patient named Gert-Jan after six months of training with the technology.
Interestingly, Gert-Jan was even able to walk using crutches when the brain-spinal cord connection was turned off, indicating potential reorganization of neuronal networks at the site of injury.
While it will require several more years of research, Guillaume Charvet, a researcher from France’s CEA, suggests that this advancement holds promise for paralyzed individuals worldwide.
The research team is already preparing a trial to explore the technology’s effectiveness in restoring arm and hand function and hopes to apply it to other conditions like paralysis caused by stroke.
AFP contributed to this report