A new breakthrough in technology allows a man to walk again after 12 years following a motorbike-related injury. Dr. Grégoire Courtine and colleagues from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, created a brain-spine interface (BSI). This technology produces a neurological link between the brain and spinal cord that allows the brain to track movement and send a signal wirelessly via a processing unit. The processing unit, which is worn like a backpack, takes the received signal from the brain implant and sends it to the spinal cord implant that stimulates the muscles.
Gert-Jan Ossam is a 40-year-old man who has been paralyzed for more than a decade following a motorbike accident while visiting China. His lower body and arms were left paralyzed, and his only wish was to be able to walk again. The BSI implants in the brain and spine reconnect the two regions of the nervous system that were severed in the accident and allow neural transmissions to resume. Previous research focused on the use of targeted electrical pulses to stimulate the neural/spinal nerves so people can walk again. This new medical device, however, is easier to adapt to rough terrain, and movements are smoother while relearning how to walk.
Digital Bridges: The Brain-Spine Interface Surgery
As part of the operation, neurosurgeon Jocelyne Bloch cut two circular holes on each side of Ossam’s skull, both 5 centimeters in diameter and above the areas where the brain controls movement. Next, she inserted two disc implants, which wirelessly transmit brain signals that are picked up by the helmet Ossam wears. The Swiss team then developed an algorithm that translates the signals picked up by the nervous system and allows the nervous system to activate his muscles to move. After a few weeks of training, Ossam could use a walker to stand and walk, albeit slowly.
The spinal implant works by amplifying the weak signals from the brain that are sent to the damaged part of the spinal cord. In 2018, David M’Zee became the first patient successfully treated through these means; and last year, Michael Rocotti became the first man with a completely severed spinal column who was able to walk again due to this technology.
Professor Jocelyne Bloch of Lausanne University worries about the delicacy of the system, as much of the research and the systems they employ are still in the early stages of development. She claims that this technology is still many years away from being a standard procedure. She wants to conduct a scientific trial and eventually provide greater access to people with spinal cord injuries.
Patients currently use the BSI implants daily for approximately an hour to retrain their muscles to walk. Patients even retain a degree of movement after the system is turned off. The eventual goal is to miniaturize the external technological package, which currently consists of the backpack and the headgear.
Onward Medical is currently looking to commercialize the technology so it can be used on a day-to-day basis for people to use. Onward Medical specializes in innovative therapy for people with spinal cord injuries. They coined the term ARC Therapy, which is a program that stimulates the spinal cord.
Onward Medical looks to commercialize the BSI implants in order to help a greater number of people who suffer from spinal cord problems like Ossam.