A paralyzed man has regained the ability to walk easily using only his thoughts for the first time, thanks to two implants that restore communication between the brain and spinal cord, researchers said Wednesday.
Patient Gert-Jan, who did not wish to reveal his surname, said that the success gave him “a freedom I didn’t have before”.
The 40-year-old Dutchman has been paralyzed in his legs for more than a decade after suffering a spinal injury during a cycling accident.
Using a new system, he can now “naturally” walk, walk over difficult paths and even climb stairs, according to a study published in the journal Nature.
The advance is the result of more than a decade of work by a team of researchers in France and Switzerland.
Last year the team showed that a spinal implant – which sends electrical pulses to stimulate movement in leg muscles – allowed three paralyzed patients to walk again.
But he had to press a button every time he wanted to move his legs.
Gert-Jahn, who also has a spinal implant, said it made it difficult to get into the rhythm of taking a “natural step”.
The latest research combines a spinal implant with a new technology called a brain-computer interface, which is implanted over the part of the brain that controls leg movement.
The researchers said the interface uses algorithms based on artificial intelligence methods to decode brain recordings in real time.
This allows the interface, which was designed by researchers at France’s Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), to detect how the patient wants to move their legs at any given time.
Data is transmitted to the spinal implant via a portable device that fits into a walker or small backpack, allowing patients to move around without the help of others.
Researchers created two implants called “digital bridges” to bridge the disconnect between the spinal cord and brain that was created during Gert-Jan’s accident.
Gert-Jan said, “Now I can do what I want – when I decide to take a step, the excitement will start as soon as I think about it.”
“It’s been a long journey to get here,” he told a news conference in the Swiss city of Lausanne, after twice undergoing invasive surgery to implant both devices.
But among other changes, he can now again stand at the bar drinking beer with friends.
“This simple joy represents a significant change in my life,” he said in a statement.
Gregoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and a study co-author, said it was “fundamentally different” from what had been accomplished before.
“Previously patients used to walk with a lot of effort – now to take a step all you need is to think about walking,” he told a news conference in the Swiss city of Lausanne.
There was another positive sign: After six months of training, Gert-Jan regained some of the sensory perception and motor skills she had lost in the accident.
He was also able to walk with crutches when the “digital bridge” was turned off.
Guillaume Charvet, a researcher at France’s CEA, told AFP that this suggests that “establishing a link between the brain and spinal cord would promote the reorganization of neuronal networks at the site of injury”.
So when might this technology be available to paralyzed people around the world? Charvet cautioned that it would take “many more years of research” to reach that point.
But the team is already preparing a trial to study whether this technique can restore function in the arms and hands.
They also hope that it may be applicable to other problems such as paralysis due to stroke.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)