In a remarkable breakthrough, a 40-year-old Dutch man named Geert Jan Oskam, who suffered lower body paralysis after a cycling accident 12 years ago, has regained the ability to walk. This feat was made possible by a “digital bridge” implanted between his brain and damaged spinal cord, as reported by The Guardian and The New York Times, based on a study published in the journal Nature by researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).
Geert’s life was transformed by the “brain-spinal interface,” also known as the digital bridge. He expressed his gratitude, saying, “A few months ago, for the first time in 10 years, I stood up and had a beer with my friends.” He further shared an incident where he painted a room by himself while standing with a walker, as there was no one available to help him.
The recent achievement can be credited to the latest research conducted by a team led by Professor Grégoire Courtine of EPFL, specializing in neuroscience. Their objective was to reconnect the severed neural pathways between useless muscles and the brain using wireless signals.
In a previous study published in Nature in 2018, the same research team had demonstrated the ability of computer-generated electrical pulses to stimulate the lower spinal cord when combined with intensive training, enabling individuals with spinal cord injuries to walk again. While Geert was part of that initial experiment and managed to take multiple steps, further progress had been limited. The movements felt robotic and required activation through buttons or sensors.
To address this limitation, Professor Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon at EPFL, inserted two electrode grids into Geert’s skull, allowing the detection of neural activity when he attempted to move his legs. When Geert intends to walk, the implanted grids capture the brain’s electrical activity and transmit signals to a computer he carries in a backpack. The computer, in turn, sends wireless signals to a pulse generator on his spinal cord, which activates the electrodes already implanted in his spine, enabling movements in the hip, knee, and ankle muscles.
Professor Courtine explained that while previous devices resembled pre-programmed robotic movements, the new system was able to “capture Geert’s thoughts and convert them into spinal cord stimulation, re-establishing voluntary leg movements.” Geert himself stated, “Previously, the stimulation controlled me, but now I control the stimulation through my thoughts. When I think about taking a step, the simulation starts immediately.” Although the device doesn’t produce perfectly fluid strides, Geert emphasized the naturalness of the movement compared to before.
Furthermore, the digital bridge device has facilitated rehabilitation. After wearing the brain-spinal interface and completing 40 rehabilitation sessions, Geert regained voluntary control of his legs and feet. Even when the system is switched off, Geert is still able to exert some control over his legs. Professor Courtine highlighted that reconnecting the brain and spinal cord helps to partially restore lost motor function in patients with spinal cord injuries.
Professor Courtine pointed out that Geert’s case is remarkable considering the injury occurred more than 10 years ago, stating, “Imagine applying the digital bridge a few weeks after a spinal cord injury. The potential for recovery is immense.” The research team hopes to develop miniaturized devices that can assist stroke and paralysis patients in walking, moving their arms and hands, and controlling other functions affected by spinal cord injuries, such as