An international team of scientists has managed to make Gert-Jan Oskam, a 40-year-old Dutchman who suffered a spinal cord injury in a bicycle accident that left him paralyzed in 2011, able to walk again thanks to a wireless digital bridge that restores communication between the brain and spinal cord.

This digital bridge has allowed him to regain control over the movement of his paralyzed legs, which allowed him to stand up, walk and even climb stairs, according to the scientists in an article published this Wednesday in the scientific journal ‘Nature’.

Two types of electronic implants are needed to establish this digital bridge. In the first place, they have implanted some devices in the region of the brain in charge of controlling the movements of the legs that allow the decoding of the electrical signals that the brain generates when we think about walking. In addition, they also placed a neurostimulator attached to an electrode array over the region of the spinal cord that controls leg movement.

“Thanks to algorithms based on adaptive artificial intelligence methods, movement intentions are decoded in real time from brain recordings,” explained one of the people in charge of the research, Guillaume Charvet.

These intentions are then converted into sequences of electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, which in turn activate the leg muscles to achieve the desired movement. This digital bridge works wirelessly, allowing the patient to move autonomously.

Rehabilitation thanks to this digital bridge has allowed Gert-Jan to recover the neurological functions that she had lost since her accident.

Researchers have quantified remarkable improvements in their sensory perceptions and motor skills, even when the digital bridge was turned off. Thus, the researchers consider that this digital repair of the spinal cord “suggests that new nerve connections have developed.”

So far, the digital bridge has only been tested on one person. In the future, according to the researchers, a similar strategy could be used to restore function in the arms and hands. Likewise, they believe that this digital bridge could also be applied to other clinical indications, such as paralysis due to stroke.

The company responsible for the digital bridge, ONWARD Medical, together with the Swiss universities responsible for the study, has received support from the European Commission to develop a commercial version of the digital bridge, with the aim of making the technology available worldwide.

Gert-Jan Oskam barely remembers the day of her car accident in 2011. All she has are flashes of memories: waking up in a moving ambulance in excruciating pain; being asked by a doctor if he had enough money for treatment; realizing that he felt nothing in his lower body and that he was paralyzed from the waist down.

On his flight back to the Netherlands (at the time of the accident, Oskam was working in China as a logistics coordinator) he was sure that he would be cured in his country. But after the operation, the doctor seemed satisfied that his patient was even able to reach her nose with her arm. “He told me ‘you can scratch your nose, that’s fine. Don’t expect any improvement,'” he recalls.

To avoid becoming a lifelong quadriplegic, Oskam joined this clinical trial at Lausanne University Hospital in 2017 for a seven-month trial. First, electrodes were surgically inserted into his lower back.

Through these electrodes, electrical impulses are sent to the spinal cord to stimulate the muscles, potentially helping the remaining nerves that were not severed in the accident carry signals from the brain to the legs. After the operation, Oskam spent the rest of his stay in Lausanne stretching, standing up and walking, first with a harness and then on crutches.

In the end he was able to take a few steps without the help of any device, but it was not enough. Therefore, he accepted the proposal to test this new digital bridge. Now Oskam can walk more fluently, navigate obstacles and climb stairs: “Before the stimulation controlled me, now I control the stimulation.”

The patient explains that, thanks to this device, he has regained a lot of mobility and, in addition, being able to share a beer standing up in a bar with his friends: “This simple pleasure represents a significant change in my life.”