Researchers have developed a device that connects the intentions of paralyzed individuals to their physical movements, allowing them to regain control over their lower bodies. In a groundbreaking study published in the journal Nature, scientists in Switzerland described implants that served as a “digital bridge” between the brain and spinal cord of a paralyzed patient, bypassing damaged areas. The implants enabled the patient, Gert-Jan Oskam, to stand, walk, and even ascend a steep ramp with the assistance of a walker. Remarkably, Oskam showed signs of neurological recovery, being able to walk with crutches even when the implant was switched off.
The brain-spine interface relied on an artificial intelligence thought decoder to interpret Mr. Oskam’s intentions, which were detected as electrical signals in his brain, and translate them into muscle movements. By preserving the natural process of movement from thought to intention to action, the researchers successfully bridged the gap between the brain and injured parts of the spinal cord.
While previous stimulation technologies had yielded some improvement for Mr. Oskam, they left him feeling disconnected from his own movements. The new interface, however, allowed him to control the stimulation and experience a sense of agency. The study represents a significant milestone, as it is the first time such success has been achieved in a human patient, blurring the line between brain and technology.
The research team implanted electrodes in Mr. Oskam’s skull and spine, then used machine learning to identify the brain activity associated with different body movements. Another algorithm connected the brain implant to the spinal implant, enabling the transmission of electrical signals that prompted muscle movement. Over time, the interface was refined to optimize basic actions like walking and standing. Mr. Oskam experienced notable improvements in his movement, even without the assistance of the brain-spine interface, indicating long-lasting benefits.
While the researchers acknowledged limitations, such as the challenge of distinguishing subtle intentions in the brain and the invasive nature of the treatment, they remain hopeful that further advancements will enhance accessibility and effectiveness. Their ultimate goal is to make this technology available to paralyzed patients worldwide who can benefit from it.