A paraplegic returned to walking naturally thanks to the innovative combination of two technologies that allowed communication between the brain and the mind to be restored spinal cord.
“I have regained my freedom”assured on Tuesday at a press conference the Dutchman Gert-Jan (he did not want to give his last name), who benefited from this technological innovation in a Swiss hospital in Lausanne.
Thanks to her, this 40-year-old patient is once again moving one foot behind the other for the first time since he suffered a spinal cord injury at the level of the cervical vertebrae about ten years ago due to a bicycle accident.
“I was unable at first to put one foot in front of the other”explained the Swiss surgeon Jocelyne Bloch, professor at the Vaud University Hospital Center, in Lausanne, during the presentation of a study published this Wednesday in the prestigious journal Nature.
Before him, other paraplegics had already managed to walk thanks to technological instruments, but in his case it is the first time that he has controlled the movement of his legs and the rhythm of his steps thanks to his brain.
This feat has been possible thanks to the combination of two technologies implanted in the brain and spinal cord, explains Guillaume Charvet, a researcher at the Commissariat for Atomic Energy (CEA), a major French scientific and industrial research laboratory, to AFP.
Two laboratories, one French and one Swiss, are behind this scientific breakthrough, achieved after ten years of joint research.
Gert-Jan had electrodes developed by the CEA implanted in the area of the brain that is responsible for leg movement.
This device is used to decode electronic signals from the brain when thinking about walking and is also connected to a field of electrodes located in the spinal cord area that is used to control leg movement.
Thanks to algorithms that work from artificial intelligence, the patient’s movement intentions are decoded in real time.
And then their wills become a sequence of electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, which is responsible for activating the leg muscles to move.
Data between the technology embedded in the brain and the technology in the spinal cord is transmitted using a portable system that can be carried in a backpack or walker.
Until now, paraplegics had only been able to walk again thanks to the implantation of an electronic stimulation system in the spinal cord. But they could not control their movements naturally.
In the case of the Dutch patient, the digital bridge created between the brain and the spinal cord not only allows him to walk, but also to voluntarily control his movements and their range.
“It is very different from what we have seen so far”highlights the French neuroscientist Grégoire Courtine, professor at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne. “Previous patients were making a great effort, now he can do it just thinking that he wants to take a step”Add.
Gert-Jan, who underwent surgery twice to have the implants placed, admits having gone through “a long journey” to get back on his feet and walk for several minutes at a time.
Another significant advance was that, after six months of training, it seems to have recovered a part of its sensory and motor faculties even when the system is deactivated.
“These results suggest that the establishment of a link between the brain and the spinal cord favors a reorganization of the neuronal circuits in the area of the lesion”says Charvet.
Will this innovative technology soon be able to be used on a large scale? “We will still need many years of research”acknowledges this CEA scientist.
His teams will soon start a trial to use it in arm and hand paraplegics and have also planned to apply it to victims of cerebrovascular accidents.
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