Formerly paralyzed can walk again – thanks to ground-breaking technology

Twelve years ago, Gert-Jan Oskam, 40, was paralyzed in a serious bicycle accident.
Thanks to ground-breaking research – and a wireless “digital bridge” – he can now walk again.
– Within five to ten minutes I was able to control my hips, he says.

In 2011, Dutch engineer Gert-Jan injured his neck so badly that he could no longer move his legs.

The 40-year-old has since participated in a research study at the Swiss Institute of Technology EPFL, which showed that technology to stimulate the spine with electrical impulses could help people with spinal cord injuries walk again.

Today, he is back on his feet and can walk with the help of crutches, thanks to a so-called “digital bridge” between his brain and the nerves below his injury.

– Within five to ten minutes I could control my hips, as if the brain implant understood what I was doing with them, he says in an interview released by EPFL.

Sending command

When Gert-Jan now thinks about walking, electrodes attached to his brain relay the message to electrodes on the spinal cord, which stimulate the spine.

– To walk, the brain must send a command to the region of the spinal cord responsible for the control of movements. When there is a spinal cord injury, this communication is interrupted, says Professor Grégoire Courtine, neuroscientist at EPFL.

– Our idea was to restore this communication with a digital bridge, an electronic communication between the brain and the region of the spinal cord that is still intact and can control leg movement, continues the researcher.

“I feel like a child”

The signal is transmitted wirelessly and decoded by a computer that Gert-Jan carries in a backpack, which then transmits the information to a spinal pulse generator – and which allows a previously paralyzed man to now walk.

Gert-Jan Oskam’s hope is that in the future the same technology can help him also move his arms, which are currently partially paralyzed.

– I feel like a small child learning to walk again, says the 40-year-old in an interview with BBC.

– It has been a long journey, but now I can get up and have a beer with my friend. It’s a pleasure that many people don’t realize, he continues.