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Pioneering surgery helps paralysed man walk again

Sensors on Gert-Jan's head transmit his brain signals from an implant to a computer

A pioneering system sending thoughts to the feet and legs via wireless electronic brain implants has enabled a paralysed Dutch man to walk again.

Gert-Jan Oskam suffered a life-changing cycling accident 12 years ago, it was thought he would never regain movement of his lower body.

But thanks to a new development the 40-year-old has been able to walk, stand and climb stairs for the first time since the near-fatal collision.

He told BBC News: "I feel like a toddler, learning to walk again.

"It has been a long journey, but now I can stand up and have a beer with my friend. It's a pleasure that many people don't realise."

Prof Jocelyne Bloch of Lausanne University, the neurosurgeon who implanted Oskam’s implants, stressed despite the procedure being successful, it’s still in its early stages and they are years away from making the surgical procedure available to paralysed patients.

Bloch said: "The important thing for us is not just to have a scientific trial, but eventually to give more access to more people with spinal cord injuries who are used to hearing from doctors that they have to get used to the fact that they will never move again."

Harvey Sihota, chief executive of Spinal Research, appreciated the surgery won’t be widely available for many years, but said the news was “very encouraging”.

He said: "While there is still much to improve with these technologies this is another exciting step on the roadmap for neurotechnology and its role in restoring function and independence to our spinal cord injury community".

Oskam went under the knife in July 2021, the procedure involved Bloch cutting two circular holes on either side of his skull, 5cm in diameter, above the brain regions which control movement. Two disc-shaped implants were then inserted which wirelessly transmit brain signals, with Oskam’s intentions, to two sensors attached to a helmet he was wearing.

Bloch’s team developed an algorithm which was able to translate the signals into instructions which moved his foot and leg muscles through a second implant inserted around Oskam’s spinal cord which was attached to the nerve endings related to walking.

After a few weeks Oskam was able to independently stand and walk, despite his movements being slow, they are smooth.

Prof Grégoire Courtine of the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne (EPFL), who led the project, said "Seeing him walk so naturally is so moving, it is a paradigm shift in what was available before".

The professor has helped paralysed people regain movement before, in 2018 David M’Zee became the first patient successfully treated with a spinal implant. In 2022 Michael Roccati was the first man with a completely severed spine to walk again.

But both patients’ walking motions were pre-programmed giving the impression of robotic movements which have to be in step with the computer, they need to stop at regular interviews and reset if they fall out of sync.

In comparison Oskam, who had his spinal implant before the brain implants, says he has greater control.

All the systems can only be used for about an hour a few times a week. Patients need to take a break and can not use them constantly. But over time they have restored a percentage of movement in their muscles, which suggests the damaged nerves could be regrowing.

But the question is, could we see this technology being enrolled to paralysed patients?

According to Courtine, the future is looking promising.

"It's coming," she told the BBC. "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".

[ It requires 200 muscles just to take one step. ]

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