A 40-year-old paralyzed for 12 years has regained control of his legs thanks to a digital interface between the brain and spinal cord. The technique, the result of a collaboration between the Polytechnic University of Lausanne (Epfl) and the University Hospital of the Vaud (Chuv) in Switzerland, is described in an article in ‘Nature’. “We have developed a digital link between the brain and spinal cord” of the patient. A sort of virtual ‘bridge’ “based on a technology that allows thoughts to be transformed into actions”, explain Grégoire Courtine and Jocelyne Bloch of Epfl, Chuv and the University of Lausanne (Unil) in a note from Chuv.
The man was paralyzed after a bicycle accident that caused a spinal cord injury to the cervical vertebrae. Now he is able to move his legs independently, standing up, and also to walk thanks to the use of crutches or the walker, even managing to climb stairs. A goal possible thanks to two electronic systems: one, the digital interface, located in the brain; the other, a brain stimulator, in the spinal cord. Thanks to an algorithm that uses artificial intelligence, the intentions from which the movement starts can be encoded and converted in real time into sequences of electrical stimuli in the spinal cord, which in turn activate the muscles of the lower limbs.
“I feel like a child learning to walk again,” the patient, Dutch Gert-Jan Oskam, told the BBC. “It’s been a long journey – he said – but now I can get up and have a beer with my friend. It’s a pleasure that many people don’t realize.”