Summary: A spinal cord injury may hinder the balance between the brain and spinal cord, which consequently affects walking, leading to paralysis. Currently, scientists are delving into the latest advancements of artificial intelligence (AI) to restore a digital bridge between the brain and spinal cord that enabled a man to stand and walk naturally in community settings.
This research was led by Swiss researchers. Prof. Jocelyne Bloch, of Lausanne University, developed a ‘digital bridge’ that consists of two electronic implants—one on the brain and another on the spinal cord. It decodes brain signals and stimulates the spinal cord to activate leg muscles.
The system is still at an experimental stage, but it is highly encouraging. Scientists believe it is many years away from being available to paralysed patients.
- Swiss scientists developed a brain-spinal interface. The interface involves two electronic implants that coordinate together to decode brain signals and consequently stimulate the spinal cord. This activates leg muscles and enables natural movements.
- The patient exhibited significant improvement, displaying enhanced sensory perceptions and motor skills during walking. Remarkably, these improvements were evident even when the system was turned off. This suggests that damaged nerves may be regrowing.
- The team is actively working to miniaturize and commercialize the technology, enabling its integration into people’s day-to-day lives.
Digital bridge from brain to spinal cord
Researchers conducted the clinical trial on a 38-year-old male who had sustained a spinal cord injury during a biking accident ten years ago, using a brain-spine interface.
A team comprising neuroscientists and neurosurgeons from EPFL/CHUV/UNIL and CEA/CHUGA/UGA actively participated in this research. In July 2021, they conducted an operation to restore Gert-Jan’s movement. Prof. Bloch cut two circular holes, 5cm in diameter, on both sides of his skull, right above the regions of the brain responsible for controlling movement. Once the cuts were made, she inserted two disc-shaped implants. These implants wirelessly transmit brain signals to two sensors attached to a helmet on his head.
A second implant inserted around Gert-Jan’s spinal cord actively received these signals. Prof. Bloch intricately attached the nerve endings related to walking. The team of researchers actively prepared an algorithm. This algorithm was responsible for translating the signals into instructions to move leg and foot muscles.
Improvement in Neurological Functions
After a few weeks of training, it was observed that the patient could stand and walk with the aid of a walker. The movements were slow but smooth, according to Prof. Grégoire Courtine of the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne (EPFL), who led the project.
“Seeing him walk so naturally is so moving,” he said. “It is a paradigm shift in what was available before”.
Researchers observed remarkable improvements in his sensory adaptations and motor skills. The degree of movement was observed even when the digital bridge was turned off. This suggests the development of new nerve connections.
The Future of Digital Bridges to Help Walking
Scientists aim to extend this technology to restore arm and hand functions and its application in other clinical indications, such as paralysis due to stroke.
Prof. Courtine reported that the company ONWARD Medical, along with CEA and EPFL, has received support from the European Commission to commercialise the digital bridge with the goal of making the technology available worldwide.
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