Gert-Jan Oskam has been paralyzed from the waist down for 12 years. In 2011, the man got into a traffic accident, breaking his neck. Since then, the Dutchman has not been able to move.
The diagnosis of the now 40-year-old was devastating: he would never be able to move again.
But meanwhile Oskam has covered 100 meters in one go and climbs the stairs. How can that be?
Digital Bridge (
Digital Bridge) is the name of the invention that made it possible for Oskam to walk. The device connects disrupted spinal cord nerves to the brain. The device was developed by neuroscientists from Switzerland (sources: Neuro Restore; The Guardian via Nature).
In the beginning there was an operation
Surgeons attached electrodes to Oskam’s brain. As soon as Oskam tries to move his legs, the electrodes read the corresponding neural activity in his brain. The data read in is then transferred from the brain to a computer.
The computer, in turn, converts the data into signals; these are passed on to the spine, where they reach electrodes. Muscles are activated from these electrodes – and finally the desired movement is carried out.
Hips, knees and ankles can be stimulated thanks to the implant.
Grégoire Courtine from the prestigious
Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne explained:
“Oskam’s thoughts are accepted. These thoughts are translated into spinal cord stimulation. This restores conscious leg movement.”
Even if Oskam’s successes already give hope: Courtine emphasizes the use of patients who are currently affected by a spinal cord injury – and says:
“Imagine we put the digital bridge in place a few weeks after a spinal cord injury. The potential for recovery would be huge.”
Although the invention does not allow quick, steady steps, according to Oskam, movements with the implant appear comparatively natural. Attempts with earlier technologies left Oskam with a strange sense of movement; Oskam felt a gap between mind and body.
The bridging of
intended action to the executed action has succeeded. Oskam is regaining some of its self-efficacy thanks to the new implant.
Here is the
Digital Bridge not the first technique Oskam tried. He looks back:
The stimulations used to control me. Now I control the stimulations. (see The New York Times).
Gert-Jan Oskam goes on to say:
“For the first time in 10 years I can get up and have a beer with friends. That was pretty cool. I want it [die Erfindung] use in my everyday life.”
Realistic optimism for those affected?
For the future, the scientists hope for compact devices that help paralyzed patients to control movements and bodily functions. One of the goals is to enable those affected to move their arms and hands again.
Norbert Weidner, director of the spinal cord center at Heidelberg University Hospital, warns against too much hope. Because Oskam had already received the implant in the spinal cord in 2017 – and was able to take the first steps with it. The brain implant followed later.
In addition, Oksam’s movements are not exclusively based on his thoughts about raising his leg – according to Weidner, a minimum amount of personal movement is the necessary basis (the Tagesspiegel reported). Nevertheless, the invention is impressive.
Are you excited about scientific advances that improve people’s quality of life? Do you draw hope for a better future from success stories like this? Write us about it in the comments!