Details of a brain implant have been making the rounds on the news recently as it has enabled a paralysed man, Gert-Jan Oskam, a 40-year-old Dutch man who sustained an incomplete cervical (C5/C6) spinal cord injury in a cycling accident 12 years ago, to be able to walk again.

Researchers, Henri Lorach, Andrea Galvez et al, published an article (Walking naturally after spinal cord injury using a brain – spine interface) in the journal Nature Medicine on yesterday following a study into digital bridges from brain to spinal cord. Professor Courtine of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale in Lausanne (EPFL) led the project.

Professor Jocelyne Bloch, of Lausanne University, was the neurosurgeon to carry out the surgery to insert the implants. The operation involved the neurosurgeon cutting two circular holes on each side of the patient’s skull and inserting two disc-shaped implants. These implants wirelessly transmit brain signals to two sensors attached to a helmet on the patient’s head. 

The researchers developed an algorithm which translates the signals into instructions to move the leg and foot muscles, through a second implant inserted in the spinal cord, which is attached to the relevant nerve endings. Effectively, the electronic implants wirelessly transit the patient’s thoughts to his legs and feet.

Following the surgery, it took a few weeks of training for the patient to stand and walk with the aid of a walker. 

This is an encouraging development for SCI patients, but the researchers, and neurosurgeon, have been clear that this this is still in the basic research stage and the technology remained many years away from being available to paralysed patients.

Harvey Sihota, the chief executive of the UK charity, Spinal Research, has been quoted as finding the development “very encouraging” and noting that “…this is another exciting step on the roadmap for neurotechnology and its role in restoring function and independence to our spinal cord injury community”.

The full article on this research can be located here.