Paralyzed Man Uses Thought-Controlled Brain and Spine Implants to Walk Again

Innovative technology permitted a paralyzed Swiss man to walk again, thanks to a brain-computer interface that enables thought-controlled walking, scientists with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) said on May 24.

A group of neuroscientists and neurosurgeons from Swiss and French institutions reported that they re-established the communication between a paralyzed patient’s brain and his spinal cord using a wireless digital bridge. The wireless interface “transforms thought into action,” allowing 40-year-old Gert-Jan, paralyzed after a bicycle accident, to stand, walk, and climb stairs again.

The procedure involved implanting a device in the region of the brain responsible for controlling leg movements. This device decodes electrical signals generated by the brain when we think about walking, according to Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon and professor at the University of Lausanne Hospital and EPFL.

According to EPFL, the digital bridge has enabled Gert-Jan to recover neurological functions that he had lost since his accident. He is the only patient the digital bridge has been tested on at this time, though the company ONWARD Medical, along with the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and EPFL, has “received support from the European Commission through the European Innovation Council to develop a commercial version of the digital bridge with the goal of making the technology available worldwide.”

In the journal Nature, Gert-Jan says he has rediscovered the joy of sharing a beer with friends at a standing bar. “This simple pleasure represents a significant change in my life,” he said.

The Grenoble Alpes University Hospital also contributed to the research. Credit: EPFL/Jimmy Ravier via Storyful

Video transcript

- Yeah, that's looking good.


- OK, let's do it again.

GERT-JAN OSKAM: OK, I need to stretch a bit.

- OK. You want the little [INAUDIBLE]?

GERT-JAN OSKAM: No, I don't want it.

- No?

GERT-JAN OSKAM: Somebody help me? Or?

- Where do you want--

- This?

GERT-JAN OSKAM: No, just because I'm [INAUDIBLE].

- This looks intense.


- OK. Good.


- I'm going to cue you now. You are more confident now?


- OK? So I go [INAUDIBLE].


- Mm-hmm. [INAUDIBLE]. OK?


- I go right. It's steeper now. I go right. Yes. I go right. Yes. I go left. Yes. I go right. So there it's picking up well. That's nice.


- Huh?

GERT-JAN OSKAM: Way too intense there. [INAUDIBLE]

- Too strong what?

- The mental training.


- It doesn't make sense if you cannot control the [INAUDIBLE].

- So let's try it because our model now with that scheme is picking up pretty well. Maybe [INAUDIBLE] using this position is [INAUDIBLE].

- We could go outside.

- But then [INAUDIBLE] starting with the [INAUDIBLE].

GERT-JAN OSKAM: Right now I'm walking with the brain-spine interface. And I feel in much more control. I only have to think about movement, and I can start and stop, like stop now and start. And also maintain whenever I want. I'm maintaining now.

Again? Do it again?

- You can do it again, yeah.

GERT-JAN OSKAM: Right now I'm working with the brain-spine interface. I feel in control with the movements. I can start whenever I-- with the brain-spine interface, I can control the stimulation with my thoughts, so I can decide when to start and when to stop with the stimulation.

Right now I can also maintain the step if I want. I am in full control of what the stimulation does, and that gives me a lot of freedom, which I didn't have with previous therapy.