A paraplegic has returned to walking naturally thanks to an innovative combination of two technologies that has allowed communication between the brain and spinal cord to be restored.
“I regained my freedom,” said German Gert-Jan (he declined to give his last name) in a press conference on Tuesday, which benefited from this technological innovation at the Swiss hospital in Lausanne.
Because of that, this 40-year-old patient is moving one foot at a time again for the first time since he suffered a spinal cord injury at the level of the cervical vertebrae ten years ago due to a bicycle accident.
“I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other,” explained Swiss surgeon Jocelyne Bloch, a professor at the Vaud University Hospital Center in Lausanne, in a study published Wednesday in the prestigious journal Nature.
Before him, other paraplegics had already managed to walk through technological devices, but in this case it was the first time that the movement of their legs and steps was controlled in their brain.
This is achieved through the combination of two technologies installed in the brain and the spinal cord, explains Guillaume Charvet, researcher of the Commissariat for Atomic Energy (CEA), a major French scientific and industrial research agency in AFP.
– Digital Bridge –
Two laboratories, one French and one Swiss, have achieved this scientific breakthrough after ten years of joint research.
Gert-Jan had CEA electrodes implanted in the area of the brain responsible for leg movement.
This device is used to decode the electronic signals from the brain when thinking about walking and also to field electrodes located in the area of the spinal cord that used to control leg movements.
Through algorithms that work from artificial intelligence, the patient’s emotional intentions are decoded in real time.
And then their wishes will be the result of electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, which is responsible for activating the leg muscles to move.
Data is transmitted between the technology in the brain and the spinal technology in the spinal cord using a portable system that can be carried in a backpack or walker.
Until now, paraplegics could only walk again thanks to the implantation of an electronic stimulation system in the spinal cord. But naturally they could not control their emotions.
In the Dutch patient, a digital bridge created between the brain and the spinal cord not only allows him to walk, but also to control his voluntary movements and extension.
– ‘A long way’ –
“It is very different from what we have seen so far,” says Grégoire Courtine, a French neuroscientist, professor at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne. “Previously patients were making a big effort, now they can do it just by thinking they want to take a step,” he adds.
Gert-Jan, who underwent surgery twice to have the implants placed, admits that he has come a “long way” to get back on his feet and walk a few minutes at a time.
Another significant development was that, after six months of training, he seems to have recovered part of his sensory and motor abilities even when the system was deactivated.
“These results suggest the establishment of a connection between the brain and the spinal cord for the regulation of neural circuitry in the region of the lesions,” says Charvet.
Will this innovative technology be used on a large scale soon? “We will still need many years of research,” this CEA scientist acknowledges.
Parts of it will soon begin to be tested on paraplegics and arm and hand, and it is also planned to apply to victims of cerebrovascular accidents.