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Breakthrough: Paralyzed man walks again using new device that connects brain with muscles

"My wish was to walk again and I believed it was possible," Oskam said during a news briefing

Spinal cord MRI
Spinal cord MRI | Shutterstock

May 25, 2023 8:45am

Updated: May 25, 2023 8:45am

A man whose legs were left paralyzed after an accident was able to walk once again more than a decade later with the help of a device that links his brain with his muscles. 

In 2011, Gert-Jan Oskam was living in China when a motorcycling accident left him paralyzed from the hips down. 

"My wish was to walk again and I believed it was possible," Oskam said during a news briefing.

To help achieve Oskam’s wish, scientists installed a brain-spine interface (BSI), which are implants that create a “digital bridge” that restored the communication between his brain and his spinal cord. Through this technology, Oskam can tell his legs how to move. 

The technology was developed by Dr. Grégoire Courtine and other scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne

“We’ve captured the thoughts of Gert-Jan and translated these thoughts into a stimulation of the spinal cord to re-establish voluntary movement,” Grégoire Courtine, a spinal cord specialist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne. 

More than a year after the BSI was installed, Oskam, now 40, can stand, walk, go up a ramp, and even navigate through complex terrains with the assistance of a walker, according to a study published on Wednesday in the journal Nature. He can also walk 330 feet (100 meters) without any assistance. Even when the BSI is turned off, Oskam still has some limited control over his legs. 

“For 12 years I’ve been trying to get back my feet,” Oskam said. “Now I have learned how to walk normally, naturally.”

“Now, I can just do what I want, and when I decide to make a step, the stimulation will kick in,” he added.

With the successful results of the study, researchers said that the next step will be to make the BSI’s hardware smaller. Currently, Oskam has to wear a backpack everywhere he goes to carry the interface.

Researchers also believe that the technology used on Oskam could also be used to restore movements in other parts of the body that have been paralyzed, such as arms and hands. 

“The concept of a digital bridge between the brain and spinal cord augurs a new era in the treatment of motor deficits due to neurological disorders,” the researchers wrote.