When Gert-Jan Oskam was badly injured in a cycling accident in China, he was left paralyzed.
He was grateful to be alive—even if doctors said he would never walk again.
Damage to his spinal cord effectively meant that communication between his brain and his legs was severed. It was physically impossible for his brain to tell his legs to walk.
Six years later, though, he was on his feet again.
How did it happen? How can a paralyzed man walk?
Through hard work, determination, countless hours of intense training—and technology.
Oskam was willing to do just about anything to regain movement in his legs, so he didn’t hesitate when asked if he’d like to participate in a trial. The experimental protocol would require surgery to place electrodes on the top of his spinal cord. The electrodes would stimulate his nerves by sending electric pulses. The spinal stimulation coupled with intense training, the study claimed, could help people who suffered from paralysis to regain movement.
A risky surgery Helps A paralyzed man walk again
Oskam signed up right away.
It wasn’t the miracle solution he was hoping for, though.
To start with, Oskam had to make a conscious decision to get the stimulation going. Some of the study participants did this by pushing a button. Because Oskam could still make a tiny movement with one of his heels, he was able to trigger the stimulation this way. His stride, though, was jerky and difficult to control. And once triggered, the stimulator sent the electric pulses automatically. Oskam could turn it on or off, but he didn’t have much more control than that.
“I felt with every step a bit stressed,” Oskam says. “I had to be in time with the rhythm otherwise I wouldn’t make a good step.”
But this first study was promising. It proved that people with spinal cord injuries could learn to walk again…and it laid the groundwork for the next study that Oskam participated in. The second (and third) surgeries he would undergo changed everything.
The amazing new Bluetooth and aI-based tech
“To walk, the brain must send a command to the region of the spinal cord responsible for the control of movement,” explains Gregoire Courtine, a scientist behind a new treatment for victims of paralysis.
“When there’s a spinal cord injury, this communication is interrupted.” Courtine set about to reunite three advances in neuroscience that would reestablish this communication.
He calls it a “digital bridge”.
First, Oskam had to submit to the knife once again—this time, with brain surgery. Surgeons implanted 64 electrodes encased in titanium in Oskam’s skull. The electrodes capture electric signals from his brain and transmit them wirelessly to a laptop, which Oskam carries in a backpack.
The laptop’s job is to translate those signals via a unique algorithm to the stimulator on his spinal cord. Because the signals are initiated by Oskam’s brain and sent instantly to the stimulator, his steps are more fluid, and the walking process more natural.
“The stimulation before was controlling me,” Oskam said, “and now I am controlling the stimulation.” Now, he can avoid obstacles and even walk upstairs because the right pulses are sent at the right time.
The “Digital bridge” That makes the connection
The process is revolutionary because never before have all three of these devices been combined to communicate with each other. Both spinal cord stimulation and brain interfaces have been used before, but there’s never been a connection between the two. From the electrodes on the brain, through the software running on the laptop, and on to the stimulator on the spinal cord, Courtine’s digital bridge makes a paralyzed man walk.
“From a biomedical engineering perspective,” says Keith Tansey, a neurologist at the Methodist Rehabilitation Center, “it’s a real tour de force.”
Even more shocking than that, the new brain device seems to be encouraging recovery. With the help of crutches, Oskam can walk with the devices turned off—something that was initially impossible.
Researchers say that the continued use of the digital process is strengthening connections between his brain and lower body. Michael Fehlings, a neurosurgeon at the University of Toronto, says, “It’s a beautiful piece of engineering.”
Still, there are improvements to be made. The device is bulky. Oskam has to lug around a laptop for it to work.
More importantly, brain surgery comes with important risks. Oskam suffered from a staph infection, forcing surgeons to remove the first brain implant. And neurosurgeons the world over are cautioning that the system hasn’t been put to the full test yet. So far, it’s worked for one paralyzed man.
Nevertheless, they are encouraged and excited by Oskam’s results.
From groundbreaking therapies for people with rare genetic disorders to use old drugs in new protocols, medical science is taking giant leaps forward.
Motivated doctors and researchers from all ver the world are making connections and making miracles happen every day — but human motivation is where it all truly starts.
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