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'We Can Give Back Hope': Paralyzed Man Walks Using Experimental Procedure

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Doctors and scientists in Lausanne, Switzerland helped a paralyzed man stand, walk, and even climb stairs, after implanting devices in his brain and on his spinal cord that are connected using artificial intelligence.  

The procedure is a still in its early stages, but a successful trial, published in Nature, gives new hope to people suffering from spinal cord injuries. 

Forty-year-old Gert-Jan Oskam lost the use of his legs in 2011 in a motorcycle accident but is now enjoying a sense of mobility once again thanks to technology linking his brain signals to his legs.

"There was like, the best outcome, I think, for everyone," Oskam told journalists. 

Normally, in order for humans to walk, the brain sends commands down the spinal cord to a specific area responsible for controlling leg movement. Injuries to the spinal cord can interrupt that communication, causing paralysis. However, a team of experts developed a way to restore that communication through a different pathway. 

"This project shows something completely new that is not any more science fiction," said Jocelyn Block, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Lausanne University Hospital and a lead researcher. "But we can give back hope to the people with a spinal cord injury, and they will be able to walk again thanks to this digital bridge."

The procedure involves two surgeries, one at the brain, where doctors implant two electrodes to record its signals, then electrodes are placed on the spinal cord area responsible for leg movement.  The brain sends signals to a laptop computer equipped with artificial intelligence that decodes the thoughts of the patient, and then encodes the desired movement to stimulate the legs.

"So of course, the patient is not walking normally as us, able-bodied person," said Dr. Gregoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, another lead researcher. "But we have some kind of a cyborg of artificial intelligence, extracting information and enabling to restore digital communication."

Oskam received his implants in 2017 and says although it's taken hard work to learn how to use the system, he feels it's worth the effort to just be able to resume some of the normal activities he used to enjoy.

"Just an example, I am training ten years to stand up with a friend having a beer and that's something I think people don't realize," he said.

Oskam was the first person to try the new procedure. Four others are set to participate in a trial, with the hope that it will eventually become successful enough to offer to many more people with paralysis stemming from spinal cord injuries.  


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