Paralyzed Man Walks Again in Huge Step for Neural Implant Therapies
Sometime in the near future, resource availability will drop dramatically, driving a spike in crime. With society on the brink of collapse, humanity looks to technology to save them from themselves. When Detroit police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is fatally wounded, doctors and scientists bring him back to life with the help of advanced robotic implants. Thus, RoboCop was born. His adventures continued through a couple of sequels, a television series (now streaming on Peacock!), and a 2014 remake starring Joel Kinnaman in the title role.
The idea of using technology to supplement our own biology has been a sci-fi dream for decades, and that dream is now becoming a reality. A study recently published in the journal Nature describes a landmark proof-of-concept trial using neural implants to restore the ability to walk in a paralyzed patient.
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Gert-Jan Oskam suffered an injury from a motorcycle accident which paralyzed him from the waist down. Thanks to years of therapy, Oskam had regained a small amount of independent movement. He could, for instance, lift his heel a little bit, but could not walk unaided. In the recent trial, researchers restored communication between the brain and the spinal cord using a digital bridge to bypass the damaged parts of the spine.
Check out the NBC News story about a paralyzed man able to walk again with brain and spine implants:
This is actually Oskam’s second implant. The first was implanted in his spine and directly stimulated nerves. Instead of using brain signals, Oskam could trigger the implant by lifting his heal. The little bit of movement he could achieve on his own triggered the device to stimulate the nerves, allowing him to take a step. Those steps, however, were clunky and inelegant. Oskam reported being stressed with every step and after a couple of years his recovery plateaued. The new system builds off that existing infrastructure by incorporating a second implant in the brain and establishing a line of communication between the two.
When Oskam thinks about moving his legs, the implant in his brain sends a signal to a computer he wears in a backpack. The computer processes the neural signals and transmits them to a pacemaker in Oskam’s abdomen. Finally, the pacemaker sends electrical signals to the implant already in Oskam’s spine to stimulate the nerves. The whole system remains connected by a pair of antennae in a helmet Oskam wears. The result is a little bulky, but shockingly effective.
Oskam reported that the BSI granted him natural control over his legs, allowing him to stand, walk, climb stairs, and more. Perhaps most importantly, Oskam reported feeling confident about his movements even over uneven terrain like gravel paths. There are some pretty significant limitations. Oskam can only walk a few hundred meters per day or stand unaided for a few minutes, and the movements aren’t as smooth as they could be. Those are all things researchers are working to improve. In the meantime, Oskam’s body appears to be doing some of the work on its own.
After about a year of using the device, Oskam was able to walk using crutches, even with the BSI turned off. Researchers suggest the BSI may have provided a framework for anatomically intact but dormant nerves, allowing them to strengthen and kick back into gear. Not only did the BSI give Oskam the ability to walk again, but it also appears to have facilitated biological healing.
It’s worth noting that Oskam’s injury and treatment aren’t necessarily typical, and mileage may vary from person to person, but researchers are confident their method should translate to a wide variety of spinal injury and stroke patients. Onward, the company who developed the technology has four additional trials planned over the next year and half. Two patients will receive devices designed to help them walk and two will target hand and arm movement.
Onward is also planning to work with insurance companies to cover the technology. The goal is to deliver a device for something like $25,000 to $50,000, a fraction of the current lifetime cost of treatment for similar injuries. With any luck, we can get the technological and medical benefits of RoboCop without the dystopian police state.
Catch RoboCop: The Series, streaming now on Peacock!