“Last week, there was something that needed to be painted, and there was nobody to help me,” said Gert-Jan Oskam, a 40-year-old Dutchman who has been a quadriplegic for twelve years. “So I took the walker and the paint, and I did it myself while I was standing.” It is not science fiction, like the technology that allows Jake Sully to embody another body in “Avatar” or that regenerates damaged neurons in Ted Chiang’s “Understand.” A scientific breakthrough, dubbed the “brain-computer interface,” has restored Oskam’s brain control over his feet.
Twelve years ago, Gert-Jan Oskam was left paralyzed in a bicycle accident.
Now, he can stand, walk and climb stairs thanks to an experimental operation by neuroscientists and surgeons in Switzerland. pic.twitter.com/4ab7mmhJv5
— The Associated Press (@AP) May 26, 2023
Dreaming of walking again
After a cycling accident in China, the Dutch logistics coordinator lost all movement in his legs and partially lost movement in his arms. The doctors then told him that he should not expect any movement other than being able to scratch his nose.
Oskam improved the mobility of his arms through years of traditional rehabilitation. Recovery was intense: in addition to physiotherapy sessions, he worked out in the gym and played wheelchair rugby, he told the NGO Wings for Life World Run.
But that was not enough for him, “Normal training just won’t get you to the level of walking you dream of,” he told the nonprofit. Therefore, in 2017, he targeted an experimental treatment that had already returned movement to rats and monkeys.
A “digital bridge”
“We have created a wireless interface between the brain and the spinal cord using brain-computer interface (BCI) technology that transforms thought into action,” explained the Professor of Neuroscience Grégoire Courtine. In other words, they created a “digital bridge.”
The accident Oskam suffered severed the connection between his brain and spinal cord, which controls the movement of the legs. Both work, but the walking command issued by the brain does not reach the nerves below the injury. The brand new “digital bridge” reconnects them.
Implants detect electrical activity in the patient’s cortex - the brain's outer layer - when thinking about walking. This signal is transmitted wirelessly to a computer inside a backpack carried by the patient. Then, the computer sends the information to electrodes in the spinal cord, which communicate the command to walk.
All this paraphernalia allows Oskam to stand, walk and climb stairs: it is summarized under the name brain- computer interface (BCI).
📯 Brain Computer Interface (BCI) enables thought-controlled walking after spinal cord injury.@unil @EPFL @CEA_Officiel
Press release : https://t.co/CTK6nGG2xY pic.twitter.com/eldurmKWCZ
— CHUV / Centre hospitalier universitaire vaudois (@CHUVLausanne) May 24, 2023
The future is now
“There is still room for other areas of research that could help improve outcomes for these types of problems,” neuroscientist Anna Leonard of the University of Adelaide told Nature. According to her, the technology could be used to recover other functions of the human body, such as bladder and bowel control.
Or it could master the mouse, the keyboard or the telephone just by thinking about it, as Neuralink, the neurotechnology company owned by Elon Musk, intends to do. The company recently received clearance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to perform studies of its brain implants in humans.
However, some voices warn about the risks of some of these implants. From unintentional damage to the brain to cyberattacks, in the case of brain stimulation devices. But in Oskam’s eyes, the foresight for this technology is more mundane and immediate: “I want to use it for my daily life,” he stated in a video released by the University Hospital of Lausanne, where he also shared:
For the first time after ten years to stand up and have a beer with my friends, that was pretty cool.