This week, researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) and the University Hospital in Lausanne (CHUV) tested a new system which allows the brain and spinal column to communicate.
Dutchman Gert-Jan Oskam has been paralysed since a bicycle accident twelve years ago. Thanks to the implants, one in the skullcap and the other in the spinal cord he can now stand, walk and even climb stairs with the help of a walker or crutches.
“It’s a nice feeling to be able to stand again,” said Oskam at a presentation of the new study. “Because it’s good for my body and, above all, prevents back pain.”
“Last week something had to be painted in the house and there was nobody who could help me. So I took the walker and did it myself. Standing.” He can walk about 200 metres, then he tires. He can stand for two to three minutes without using his hands.
According to the system’s designers, the implants in the spinal cord and in the brain communicate with each other via a kind of digital bridge using Bluetooth. Spinal cord injuries can cut off communication between the brain and the area of the spinal cord that controls walking, leading to paralysis. The so-called Brain-Spine Interface (BSI) restores this communication.
The skull implants measure brain activity with 64 electrodes. Based on this data, artificial intelligence calculates the desired movement and translates it into stimulation commands, which are transmitted wirelessly to the an array of 16 electrodes in the spinal cord. The electrodes stimulate motor neurons and activate the muscles in a targeted way.
The Lausanne-based team developed the spinal cord device around five years ago and tested it on several patients. So far, however, the muscle commands had to be entered via a tablet. According to the authors of the study, controlling movement with thoughts makes it more fluid and natural.
The researchers now want to make BSI available worldwide as quickly as possible. According to a statement by the CHUV, they have received support from the European Innovation Council (EIC) to develop a commercial version.
EPFL article (in English)