Gert-Jan Oskam walks, thanks to a system of wireless implants in his brain and spinal cord. (photo: Weber Gilles)

(NBC News – Aria Bendix) —

A 40-year-old man whose legs are paralyzed is able to climb stairs, move over ramps and switch from standing to walking, thanks to implants in his brain and spinal cord that pair with external devices to translate his thoughts into movement.

The experiment was part of a proof-of-concept study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The patient, Gert-Jan Oskam, suffered a spinal cord injury from a motor bike accident 12 years ago.  “When we met him, he was completely paralyzed, unable to take a step by himself without assistance,” said Grégoire Courtine, the study’s author and a neuroscientist at EPFL, a research university in Switzerland.

n 2017, Oskam received an experimental implant in his spinal cord as part of a different clinical trial, which helped him regain his ability to walk. By lifting his heel slightly — which he could do on his own — Oskam would trigger an electrical current that stimulated nerves in his spinal cord to allow him to take steps.  But those steps were clunky, and he couldn’t navigate around obstacles or walk on uneven surfaces.

“I felt like with every step a bit stressed, like I had to be in time with the rhythm, otherwise I wouldn’t make a good step,” Oskam said during a call with reporters on Tuesday.  And, after two years of this electrical nerve stimulation, as the approach is known, Oskam’s recovery plateaued. So he joined the proof-of-concept study in 2021.

The system is different from existing technologies in its ability to translate brain signals into movement.

When Oskam thinks about moving his legs, the implant in his brain sends a signal to an external computer, which Oskam wears as a backpack. The computer then processes and relays that signal to a pacemaker in Oskam’s abdomen, which in turn sends electrical pulses to the older implant that was already in his spinal cord. That prompts Oskam’s legs to move. A helmet with two antennas helps the implants stay connected to the computer.

Older technologies that use electrical nerve stimulation, while studied more, have relied on tiny movements from the patient or the click of a button to help the patient walk.

Henri Lorach, another EPFL scientist involved in the research, told reporters that by using the new system, Oskam could walk naturally after several minutes of training. He also gained more control over his leg movements and was able navigate tricker terrain, like gravel paths.

“The stimulation before was controlling me, and now I’m controlling the stimulation,” Oskam said.  He added that he can now walk 100 to 200 meters (around 330 to 660 feet) per day and stand unsupported for about two or three minutes.  “Last week, something needed to be painted and there was nobody to help me so I took the walker and the paint and I did it myself while I was standing,” he said.

How much mobility can a person gain?

Peter Grahn, an engineer at Mayo Clinic’s department of neurologic surgery who was not involved in the new study, said an obvious advantage to the technology is that it’s less cumbersome than exoskeleton devices, which support walking via bulky metal frames.

“A lot of devices have shown improvement in people with spinal cord injury, but then people go home and that device sits in their closet,” Grahn said.

Oskam’s steps are still slow, but Courtine said future versions of the technology might someday allow him to move faster.