A team of Swiss and French scientists has achieved an enormous advance in neural surgery, reported today in the prestigious scientific journal “Nature“: a man paraplegic has been able to walk again through the first connection or human-machine interface trained with artificial intelligence.
This advance was presented at the Vaud University Hospital Center (CHUV), in the Swiss city of Lausanne, where the first patient in whom it has been tested, a 40-year-old Dutchman named Gert-Jan who lost mobility 12 years ago of his legs in a bicycle accident, he walked in front of reporters.
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“Four years ago I didn’t even dream of something like this,” The patient, who was invited in 2016 by Swiss scientific institutions to participate in the program, previously experimented with apes but until then had not been tested on humans, told EFE.
Gert-Jan underwent operations in which two implants were placed: one in the spinal cord, and another more complex, an interface or connector between the human brain and a computer which, through 64 electrodes, collects brain stimuli and translates them into digital data after a learning phase of both the human and the machine, thanks to artificial intelligence in this second case.
“This interface is capable of recording brain activity on the surface of the cortex”explained to EFE the researcher Guillaume Charvet, from the Atomic Energy Commission, a French institution that has worked on the project together with the aforementioned CHUV, the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (EPFL) and other organizations.
After receiving these implants, the patient was asked, in a phase that required months of training, for him to imagine moving his legs: in doing so, his brain emitted stimuli that, through algorithms, were converted into data that would later reach the implant in his spinal cord and be converted into movement.
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“It was the most difficult part, thinking about natural movement after 10 years without trying”Gert-Jan acknowledged.
At first he trained his movements on an avatar, a digital and on-screen version of himself that he began to move with his thoughts, and eventually the system took his own spinal cord.
“In a few minutes he could move the avatar, so we decided to try to see if he could get up, and when he took his first steps we almost cried to see how fast he had been”recalled neurosurgeon Jocelyne Bloch, another of the main managers of the project, in statements to EFE.
The patient now walks with the help of a walker, and the brain-machine system, which it has not yet been able to be miniaturizedis still somewhat cumbersome, since the patient needs headphones to send his orders by waves, and a laptop resting on the walker to decode them before they are issued to the spinal cord, in a matter of two or three tenths of a second.
In any case, progress in neuroscience is enormousaccording to the researchers themselves, due to the important link that has been achieved between the brain and the machine, also using a technology as promising as that of artificial intelligence.
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“The next step is, of course, to spread this technology to more patients, and for that we need to industrialize it”pointed out Bloch, a professor at both CHUV and EPFL and at the University of Lausanne (UNIL), another center linked to the project.
In this sense, the Dutch company Onward Medical has already obtained support from the European Commission to develop, together with research institutions, a commercial version of this digital interface.
The researchers also highlight among the goals to be achieved in the near future that of bringing this mobility to the upper extremities (arms and hands) in order to also be useful to tetraplegic people.
For Gert-Jan, who says she has rediscovered simple pleasures such as drinking a beer standing at a bar with her friends, the next goal is to be able to walk without the help of a walker: “I think I could take a year of training”comment.
Other people in charge of the project are the professor of neuroscience Grégoire Courtine and the person in charge of the brain-computer program at EPFL, CHUV and UNIL Henri Lorach.
The brain implant, about five centimeters in diameter and which includes antennas to send the patient’s orders without the need for cables, requires a craniotomy, in which a part of the skull is replaced by this device.
This technology also According to its creators, it could be applied to people who have suffered paralysis due to a cerebrovascular attack or stroke.
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Professor Bloch stressed that a condition for it to be applied is that the patient has at least six centimeters of their spinal cord intact, since it is in them where the electrodes are inserted to control the movement of the extremities.
“We estimate that it will take about five years before it can be extended to everyone, but in the meantime, we are going to acquire a lot of knowledge in the project”anticipated.
The project could go even further and serve to recover lost natural neurological functions: improvements in sensory perceptions and motor skills have been identified in the first patient, even with the interface turned off, a kind of “digital repair” of the spinal cord in which nerve connections have developed.