After reestablishing communication between his brain, spinal cord and a wireless “digital link”, a paralysed man was able to walk.
The brain computer interface consists of two implants: one in the brain, and another in the spinal cord.
Read More: Analysis of the breakthrough in paralysis – AI is key
The first is located above the area of the brain that controls leg movements and can decode electrical signals produced when we think about our walking.
The other implant is placed over the portion of the spinal chord that controls the legs.
Scientists say that the technology is a breakthrough because it “transforms thoughts into actions” by repairing the damaged connection between the brain, and the area of the spine cord that controls the movement.
The first patient, a 40-year old Dutchman named Gert-Jan Oskam who was injured in a bicycle accident in China while working, in 2011, was the engineer Gert-Jan Oskam.
He was paralysed by the accident, but noticed improvement within days after surgeons calibrated the implants.
Rediscovering simple pleasures
“The most shocking thing that happened to me after two days,” said Mr Oskam.
In just five minutes I was able to control my hips.
After “a long journey”, the patient is now able to walk and climb stairs.
He also discovered the “simple joy” of standing at a bar with friends.
The implants were still effective even when Mr Oskam did not have supervision at home.
Neurosurgeons and neuroscientists from the University of Lausanne and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne in Switzerland treated him.
The French Atomic Energy Commission developed the implants themselves.
What is the working of technology?
Guillaume Charvet is the head of the project for the Commission. He said that the implants are using “adaptive artificial intelligent” to decode the movement intentions in the brain.
The AI converts these signals into electrical stimulations for the spinal chord, which then activates the leg muscles to prompt the desired movement.
The patient’s sensory perception and motor skills improved even after the digital bridge was turned off, allowing him the ability to walk on crutches.
Professor Gregoire courtine stated that the digital bridge did not only repair the man’s spine cord but also “promotes growth of new neural connections”.
The Key to a Breakthrough
Artificial intelligence is the key.
I spent a few hours in a laboratory with US researchers more than a decade back, trying to decode the brain signals of a monkey that was feeding itself using a robotic arm it controlled by thought.
The computer screen was flooded with hundreds of signals. It was obvious that the key to determining the intention would be to detect patterns.
Gert-Jan concentrates on a specific muscle movement while the Swiss researchers train the computer.
It is clear that the technology has been transformative for one individual. It is now time to roll it out to more people who have been paralysed in accidents or, researchers hope, by strokes.
Access will be a problem because it won’t be inexpensive. Will only the wealthy or those who have insurance payouts benefit?
But that is for the future. The breakthrough is still a great achievement. This is a remarkable breakthrough. The implications are enormous for those who live with paralysis.
Here is the full text of Thomas Moore’s analysis .
The digital bridge was only tested on Mr Oskam, but the hope is that the technology can be used in the future to restore the arm and hand function.
This treatment could be used after other causes of paralysis such as stroke.
Nature has published a detailed report on the findings.