The electronic brain implants are allowing Gert-Jan Oskam to walk again (Credit: Gilles Weber/CHUV /CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Gert-Jan Oskam was just 28 years old when a cycling accident damaged his spinal cord in 2011. The injury resulted in paralysis of his legs and a partial impairment of movement in his arms. Now, thanks to electronic brain implants, the 40-year-old Dutch man can stand, walk, and even climb stairs through just the power of his thoughts.

The groundbreaking procedure, unveiled in the journal Nature in May 2023, was performed in July 2021 by Professor Jocelyne Bloch. It involved bypassing the injured sections by creating a "digital bridge" between Mr. Oskam's brain and his spinal cord.

Dr. Bloch, a neurosurgeon at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, began by inserting two electronic implants in the area of the brain that controls movement. A third implant was placed in Oskam's spinal cord.

The scientist created a "digital bridge" to bypass the injured areas of the spinal cord (Credit: EPFL via BBC/ CC-BY-SA-2.0)

The brain implants use wireless technology to transmit and read Oskam's thoughts — detectable as brain signals — to two sensors attached to a helmet he wears. An artificial intelligence decoder developed by the team converts the signals into commands. It then sends them to move the legs and foot muscles through the implant placed around Oskam's spinal cord. The researchers say that after just a few weeks of training, Oskam could stand and walk with the aid of a walker. He even regained some control over his legs without using the device.

"For 12 years, I've been trying to get back my feet," Oskam said. "Now I have learned how to walk normal, natural."

Though promising, the procedure is still in its early stages. It will take many years before it becomes widely available to paralyzed patients. The researchers also need to reduce the size of the hardware needed to run the technology. Currently, Oskam carries it in a backpack. Once perfected, they plan to use it to restore arm movement as well.