Scientists were able to restore control of the lower part of the body to a paralyzed man thanks to implants in the brain and spine. This is reported by The New York Times with reference to research by Swiss specialists in the journal Nature.
Gert-Jan Oskam was living in China in 2011 when he had a motorcycle accident and was paralyzed from the hips down. But with a combination of devices, scientists were able to provide a “digital bridge” between the man’s brain and spinal cord. It allowed him to stand, walk, climb a steep ramp with a walker, get in and out of a car, and even stand at a bar for a drink.
More than a year after the implant, he retained these abilities and actually showed signs of neurological recovery, walking with crutches even when the implant was turned off.
“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, said.
In the study, the brain-spinal cord interface took advantage of an artificial intelligence-based thought decoder to read the paralyzed man’s intentions and match them with muscle movements. The etiology of natural movement, from thought to intention to action, was preserved. The only addition was a “digital bridge” spanning the damaged parts of the spine.
To implement the idea, the researchers implanted electrodes in Gert-Jan’s skull and spine. They then used a machine learning program to observe which areas of the brain light up when he tries to move different parts of his body. This mind decoder was able to match the activity of certain electrodes with certain intentions.
The scientists then used a different algorithm to connect the brain implant to the spinal cord, which was configured to send electrical signals to different parts of the body, causing movement. The algorithm was able to account for slight variations in the direction and speed of contraction and relaxation of each muscle. Eventually, specialists refined the interface between the brain and the spine to better correspond to basic actions such as walking and standing.
Despite the fantastic results, the scientists acknowledged the limitations of their work. Although the current interface between the brain and spine is suitable for walking, the same cannot be said for restoring upper body movement. Treatment is also invasive, requiring surgery and physical therapy. The current system does not correct all cases of spinal cord paralysis. But the team hopes that progress will make the treatment more accessible and systematically effective.
We will remind you that earlier researchers from Johns Hopkins University developed a new technique, which allows a partially paralyzed person to eat with the help of robotic arms connected through a brain-machine interface.