By Sean Zucker–
There is a lot of pushback when it comes to artificial intelligence (A.I.). People worry about its impact on everything from jobs to communication and even privacy. All this tends to obscure the positive impacts other emerging technologies have had on making lives easier. A recent achievement in Europe served as another reminder of tech’s potential when a paralyzed man was able to walk again thanks to A.I. medical technology.
Gert-Jan Oskam lost the ability to walk more than a decade ago when he damaged his spinal cord in a cycling accident. This incident left him with completely paralyzed legs and partially paralyzed arms. Now, he is walking again with the aid of an implant developed by researchers in Switzerland and France.
“Within five to ten minutes I could control my hips. The brain implant picked up what I was doing with my hips so that was the best outcome I think for everyone,” he reported.
The implant was created by a team from The Swiss University of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and The French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). The work, which is hailed as groundbreaking, involved creating a digital bridge between Oskam’s brain and the nerves below his injury.
“We have created a wireless interface between the brain and the spinal cord using brain-computer interface (BCI) technology that transforms thought into action,” explained Professor Grégoire Courtin, a co-author of the study. “To walk, the brain must send a command to the region of the spinal cord responsible for the control of movements. When it’s a spinal cord injury this communication is interrupted.”
Creating the digital bridge required implanting electrodes during two surgeries, one on Oskam’s brain and another on his spinal cord. These implants then used A.I. to convert his thoughts into actions.
“Thanks to algorithms based on adaptive artificial intelligence methods, movement intentions are decoded in real-time from brain recordings,” explained Guillaume Charvet, the head of the BCI program at CEA.
During more than 40 rehabilitation sessions spanning six months, Oskam slowly regained the ability to voluntarily move his legs and feet. He is now able to walk short distances with the use of crutches.
Ultimately, the technology could have wide-ranging implications for a variety of conditions including restoring arm and hand functions as well as offsetting paralysis due to strokes. “We believe that this demonstration opens realistic perspectives to treat deficits due to other neurological disorders,” study co-author Jocelyne Bloch reported.
Oskam, for his part, is simply thankful for the technology’s small miracles, like now being able to stand at a bar and share a beer with friends. “This simple pleasure represents a significant change in my life,” he explained.