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The one who walked again

Twenty eight year old Gert-Jan Oskam was riding his bike in China when he met with an accident that broke his neck. His legs were paralyzed and was told he would never walk again.

Fast forward 12 years – Oskam was able to walk again, thanks to a device called the “Brain-Spine Interface”, that uses Bluetooth to created a connection between the brain and spinal cord that allows for movements based on thought. This device was an improvement over the initial work by Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and his colleagues.

Oskam has been involved in the trial for a few years now. He worked with an earlier version on the device that used a computer to send signals to the spinal cord that helped him take a few steps at a time, however, the movements were robotic and were triggered by a switch.

In this update, Prof Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon at Lausanne University hospital, implanted electrodes on Oskam’s brain that detect neural activity when thinks about his legs. The readings are processed by an algorithm that turns them into pulses, which are sent to further electrodes in his spine. The pulses activate nerves in the spine, switching on muscles to produce the walking movement.

This trial, though still in its early stages is a huge step towards restoring voluntary motor control in patients suffering from neurological diseases, such as spinal cord injuries, strokes, Parkinson’s and tremors, etc. In addition patients will be able to have more control over other parts such as arms, hands, bladder etc. as this technology develops.

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