Neuroscientist Gregoire Courtine, from the Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne (EPFL), together with neurosurgeon Jocelyne Bloch, from the EPFL Vaud University Hospital Center (both in Switzerland), have spent years researching how people with damaged spinal cords can return to life. walk. In 2018, after inserting implants into their spinal cord, they managed to get three men paralyzed for several years to achieve that goal.
Now, a team led by both researchers has developed wireless technology that has allowed Gert-Jan, a 40-year-old Dutch man, to walk again who, a decade ago, suffered paralysis of his legs due to spinal cord damage after a bicycle accident.
“We have created a ‘digital bridge’ between the brain and the spinal cord, through a brain-computer interface [BCI], which transforms thought into action with artificial intelligence algorithms,” says Courtine, leader of the study published in Nature.
The authors explain that this technology allowed the patient to regain natural control of the movement of his paralyzed legs. In addition, after several rehabilitation sessions with the BCI, the team quantified notable improvements in their sensory perceptions and motor skills that were maintained even when the device was turned off.
In this sense, Andrea Galvez Solano, EPFL researcher and first signatory of the work, comments to SINC that “the novelty of the BCI is that the patient can control the stimulation or, therefore, the movements— directly through their thoughts.”
According to Galvez, “This means that she is able to take longer or shorter steps, walk on different surfaces and even climb stairs, adapting to the environments of everyday life. Simultaneous activation of neurons above and below the lesion, which the interface allows, along with targeted rehabilitation sessions, is likely to promote neurological recovery and improve the patient’s clinical picture, she stresses.
To establish the digital bridge, two types of electronic implants were needed. Bloch explains: “We have implanted electrodes, developed by the CEA research center, over the region of the brain that controls leg movement.
These devices allow us to decode the electrical signals generated by the brain when we think about walking. We also “placed a neurostimulator connected to an electrode array over the region of the spinal cord responsible for the lower extremities.”
The Dutchman Gert-Jan, who suffered a spinal cord injury 10 years ago as a result of an accident, has regained natural control of his paralyzed legs with the help of a ‘digital bridge’. This system restores communication between the brain and spinal cord and transforms thought into action. The research has been led by researchers from the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne.
The Dutchman Gert-Jan, who suffered a spinal cord injury 10 years ago as a result of an accident, has regained natural control of his paralyzed legs with the help of a ‘digital bridge’. This system restores communication between the brain and spinal cord and transforms thought into action.
The research has been led by researchers from the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne For his part, Guillaume Charvet, head of the BCI program at the CEA, comments that “thanks to the use of adaptive artificial intelligence algorithms, the patient’s movement intentions are decoded in real time from brain records.”
Next, “these intentions are 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, which allows the patient to move autonomously”, underlines the expert.
Gert-Jan says that, after ten years, he has recovered the pleasant sensation of being able to share a beer standing in a bar with his friends: “This simple pleasure represents a significant change in my life”, he comments with satisfaction.
So far, the BCI system has only been tested with it. However, according to Galvez, “in the future, a similar strategy could be used to restore arm and hand function. And it could also apply to other neurological problems, such as paralysis due to stroke.
The ONWARD Medical company, together with the CEA and the EPFL, has received support from the European Commission through its European Innovation Council to develop a commercial version of the digital bridge, with the aim of making the technology available worldwide. .