We have all heard of brain implants, thanks to Elon Musk's Neuralink. So far, our minds have thought of brain implants as something that will usher in a dystopian society and make us all cyborgs. But brain implants are actually being trialed for something better - like to make the paralysed walk again.
A Swiss team of researchers trialed a brain and spinal implant to make a 40-year-old paralysed man walk again. The way the system works is something straight out of a sci-fi novel.
Ever wondered what it would be like if you thought of something and the computer typed those thoughts on a screen by itself without using the physical keyboard. This system works in a similar way.
The brain implant uses the patient's thoughts to send signals to the nerve endings in the spinal cord to make the legs move.
In other words, the researchers are using mind-reading technology to make a patient walk again, all by just making the man think of walking.
The story of Gert-Jan Oskam
40-year-old Dutchman Gert-Jan Oskam was left paralysed in a cycling accident nearly 12 years ago in China. He suffered from spinal cord damage in his neck leading to paralysed legs and partially paralysed arms.
Now, Oskam can walk at least 100 meters and stand using his hands for a few minutes without assistance. His movements are also smoother than before, thanks to the brain and spinal implants he received.
Even when the system aiding his movements is turned off, Oskam still has some degree of movement, thanks to the practice.
Gert-Jan Oskam is the first patient on trial for the latest development. In July 2021, a Swiss team led by Prof Jocelyne Bloch, of Lausanne University inserted the brain and spinal implants in Oskam.
Prof Bloch, a neurosurgeon had to carry out a delicate surgery that involved cutting 5 cm diameter holes on either side of Oskam's skull to insert the two disc-shaped implants. She also had to insert a second implant around Oskam's spinal cord near nerve endings used for walking.
Oskam can walk again just by thinking about it. His thoughts send signals to a helmet attached to the brain implant which then wirelessly transmits those instructions to the implant in his spinal cord and makes his nerves move his legs.
The concept of a digital bridge between the brain and spinal cord augurs a new era in the treatment of motor deficits due to neurological disorders.
- Researchers wrote in a study published in the Nature
The main aim of the project aims is to reestablish the connection between the brain and the muscles which become useless after spinal cord nerves are damaged or broken.
This new technological development can bring new life and hope to those who have been told they have to get used to never being able to use their limbs again due to nerve or spinal cord damage.
— CHUV / Centre hospitalier universitaire vaudois (@CHUVLausanne) May 24, 2023
An earlier version of the technology only used a spinal cord implant to stimulate movements in paralysed legs. But this involved computer-generated instructions that at times could go out of sync and did not produce natural movements.
The brain and spinal cord implant produces smoother and more natural movements comparatively, though it is still in the early stages of development.
The device also seems to help with the rehabilitation of paralysed individuals. Oskam was able to gain some control over some of his legs after 40 training sessions with the device even when it was turned off.
There is hope that reestablishing communication between the brain and the spine will help regenerate the spinal nerves, which may not be completely damaged or severed.
The device is still at an experimental stage, but the team hopes to miniaturise the technology so it can be more commercially viable for stroke and paralysed patients.
Given that the device establishes a connection between the brain and the spinal cord quickly, it will be tremendously helpful in rehabilitating patients with more recent injuries.
It's coming. Gert-Jan received the implant 10 years after his accident. Imagine when we apply our brain-spine interface a few weeks after the injury. The potential for recovery is tremendous.
- Prof Grégoire Courtine at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne
Oskam's case is a world first. Earlier, the same team of researchers had used only a spinal implant to make a man whose spinal cord was completely severed walk again, in another world-first. The brain and spinal implant are a step ahead of just having a spinal implant.