Sandra Cabangon

“They told me, ‘No, we can’t help you. I could move my arms,’ and they said, ‘Be happy with this,’ but I never believed that I couldn’t walk anymore.”

Photo Courtesy of Fabrice Coffrini/AFP / Gilles Weber

These were the words of Gert-Jan Oskam, a 40-year-old who became paralyzed in an accident 12 years ago. Despite the discouraging words said to him, he was able to walk again thanks to a device that reads his brain and sends instructions to his spine. 

“We’ve captured the thoughts of Gert-Jan, and translated these thoughts into a stimulation of the spinal cord to re-establish voluntary movement,” said Grégoire Courtine, a spinal cord specialist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, who helped lead the research.

Described as a “digital bridge,” this phenomenon was made possible by neuroscientists from Switzerland. The team first implanted electrodes in Oskam’s skull and spine to identify the regions used in muscle movement. Then, they connected the implants utilizing an algorithm in order to send electrical signals to different parts of his body. The algorithm was able to note the slight variations in the direction and speed of each muscle contraction and relaxation. 

In the first treatment, Oskam was able to twist his hip muscles. The researchers fine-tuned the brain-spine interface to be better suited for basic actions like walking and standing. Oskam could easily walk ramps and showed clear improvements in his movement even without the aid of the interface. 

He can now walk in a limited way around his house, get in and out of a car, and stand at a bar for a drink. He said that for the first time, he felt in control, unlike the previous stimulation procedures that left a foreign feeling and resulted in rather robotic movements.

“The stimulation before was controlling me, and now I’m controlling the stimulation,” said Mr. Oskam.

Considering the remarkable improvements Gert-Jan Oskam showed even more than a decade after the accident, the team believes that patients with more recent injuries could recover even more. As Courtine said, “Imagine if we apply the digital bridge a few weeks after spinal cord injury. The potential for recovery is tremendous.”

At present, Mr. Oskam carries the device in a backpack, while the team is actively working on reducing its size to make it more wearable and portable in daily activities. 

Researchers have high hopes for this device because of its ability to boost recovery and rehabilitation. Looking forward, they believe that future devices will help stroke patients and more paralyzed people to walk, move their arms and hands, and control other functions affected by spinal cord injuries.