A paralyzed man who was the first to walk again thanks to an artificial intelligence system has revealed how his dream of hanging out at the bar with friends has come true as he enjoys renewed freedom.
Last week, Gert-Jan Oskam – supported by a walker – took several steps thanks to an AI system that reads his thoughts and orders his legs to move.
Swiss researchers have spent ten years developing the technology, but say it wouldn’t have been possible without Oskam’s extraordinary drive to walk again.
“It was never in my nature to sit still,” Oskam told The Times.
Thanks to technology, he realized his dream and is now able to stand at the bar and have a beer with his friends – to feel like part of the conversation.
Oksam now hopes that thousands more patients with spinal cord injuries can follow suit.
Gert-Jan, 40, suffered a spinal cord injury following a bicycle accident that left him paralyzed. But a new electronic implant has given her back control of her legs
Oskam, 40, from the Netherlands, suffered a devastating cycling accident while working in Beijing, China, in 2011. He was told he “had no chance” of walking again.
Spinal cord injuries can interrupt communication between the brain and the region of the spinal cord that controls walking, leading to paralysis.
Professor Jocelyne Bloch, neurosurgeon at the CHUV: “As a doctor, I was taught that if a patient with a spinal cord injury did not recover in six months, he would remain in a wheelchair forever.
“That paradigm has now changed,” he added.
The new system means that Oskam’s thoughts are translated into motion thanks to a “digital bridge” created by neuroscientists at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).
An implant is placed in the patient’s brain, above the area responsible for leg movement. Meanwhile, the second is placed over the region of the spinal cord that controls leg movement.
The brain signals are then converted into electrical spinal cord stimulation sequences. This in turn activates the leg muscles to achieve the desired movement.
Noël Keijsers, who is a senior researcher at Sint Maartenskliniek and has worked closely with Oskam, said: “It’s physically and mentally demanding. Technology is nothing without the right person.
Oskam often trained with his father who he says saw the worst in him.
Mr Oskam has regained the ability to stand and walk naturally, thanks to technology developed by researchers in Switzerland
Incredible moment a paralyzed man was able to walk for the first time in 12 years has been caught on camera
In a bid to be accepted into the clinical trial in 2017, Oskama traveled alone from the Netherlands to Switzerland to show that he was independent and suitable for the project.
At the start of the STIMO trial, there was no brain implant or AI, just a strip of electrodes implanted in the lower back.
This allowed Oskama to stand up and have a beer with his friends – one of his “bog dreams”.
“When you’re sitting at that level (wheelchair level) you feel like you’re not part of the conversation. It’s a small thing but it makes a big difference. I still can’t stand for hours. But 15 minutes is possible, then I take a break,” he added.
The next trial began in July 2021 and included brain implants. Two days after the operation, he and the research team began teaching an AI to read his mind.
This gave Oskam more control as he is able to pause in the middle of a stride, or shorten or lengthen it just by thinking.
One implant is placed in the patient’s brain (pictured), above the region responsible for leg movement, while the second is placed on the region of the spinal cord which controls leg movement
Signals from the brain are converted into sequences of electrical stimulation of the spinal cord. This in turn activates the leg muscles to achieve the desired movement
Using this revolutionary technology improved the condition of his muscles and nerves, leading to improvements in coordination and movement. Even when turned off, he is able to stand and take steps.
Oskam said, “I feel healthier, I sit straighter, I’m stronger, I’m more independent.”
He thinks he may spend only a little time each day in his wheelchair for the next five years. He said: “Technology is changing rapidly. We have a lot of smart people working on it. So let’s set the bar high.
In an example of his progress, Oskam recently redecorated his house and was able to stand up and paint the walls. Professor Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, who led the research, said: “Fifteen years ago I was working with lab rats, testing ideas that seemed completely crazy – and now we let’s see these levels of recovery.
Although the system allowed Gert-Jan to stand, walk and climb stairs on his own, he joked that the best thing he could have done was stand at the bar to share a beer with his friends.
‘How can you dream of a better journey as a scientist? I just hope we get past the last line, that it really becomes a commercially available treatment.
The next phase of research began this week with the first of four new patients being operated on.
Five to ten years from now, Dave Marver, chief executive of Onward Medical, thinks it’s possible paralyzed patients will no longer be told there’s no hope of walking.