Jocelyne Bloch and Grégoire Courtine

Jocelyne Bloch and Grégoire Courtine

After a 2011 motorbike accident, Gert-Jan Oskam lost his ability to walk. The portion of his spinal cord that connects to his legs was damaged, severing his brain’s ability to send signals to make his legs move. “If you have a spinal-cord injury, the brain is sending a command to the legs, but it’s interrupted at the level of the injury,” says Dr. Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon at Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland.

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The first breakthrough came in 2018, when Bloch inserted a device on Oskam’s spine that could send out electrical impulses, which enabled him to walk with a walker after intensive training, though the movement was awkward and required pushing a button. Then, in 2023, Bloch implanted additional devices, this time inside his brain, to build a “digital bridge” between the legs and the brain. After more training, Oskam is able to move much more naturally; he has more precise control of his joints, can stand, and walks with a walker, including up stairs. What’s more, Oskam can still walk with the device turned off, which suggests that the device may actually be helping the nervous system to rebuild itself.

Neuroscientist Grégoire Courtine, who helped lead the device’s development and is a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, hopes to prove the technology safe and effective and have it available to the wider public in the next decade. But the team is still searching for ways to push the technology even further, and enable paralyzed people to walk fully “normally,” says Courtine.

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