For the first time, a man living with quadriplegia can move and feel someone’s touch below the level of his injury with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) and microchips implanted in his brain.
This game-changing technology could one day help people with paralysis live more independently and with fewer limitations.
Researchers, engineers, and surgeons at Northwell Health’s The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research implanted the microchips in 45-year-old Keith Thomas’s brain and developed AI algorithms to re-link his brain to his body and spinal cord.
This procedure formed an “electronic bridge” that allows information to flow between Thomas’s paralyzed body and brain, restoring movement and sensations in his hand. Crucially, the gains have lasted outside the laboratory.
“This is the first time the brain, body, and spinal cord have been linked together electronically in a paralyzed human to restore lasting movement and sensation,” Chad Bouton, the study’s principal investigator, says in a press release.
“When [Thomas] thinks about moving his arm or hand, we ‘supercharge’ his spinal cord and stimulate his brain and muscles to help rebuild connections, provide sensory feedback, and promote recovery,” he explains.
Thomas injured his spine in a diving accident on July 18, 2020, a diving accident caused him to injure his spine at C4 and C5, leaving him unable to move or feel anything from the chest down.
“There was a time that I didn’t know if I was even going to live, or if I wanted to, frankly,” Thomas says in the press release. “And now, I can feel the touch of someone holding my hand. It’s overwhelming.”
Mapping the Brain, 15-Hour Surgery
Feinstein Institute researchers and clinicians spent months mapping Thomas’s brain to help pinpoint the areas that control arm movement and allow him to sense touch in his hand.
Then they performed a 15-hour surgery at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset in New York. Thomas was awake for part of the procedure.
As they probed parts of his brain he would tell them what he was feeling in his hands. This approach allowed the surgeons to know exactly where to place the brain implants.
They inserted two chips in the area that controls movement and three more in the area that controls touch and feeling in his fingers.
Back in the lab, through two ports protruding from Thomas’s head, he connects to a computer that uses AI to read, interpret, and translate his thoughts into action.
For example, he thinks about squeezing his hand, which sends electrical signals from his brain implant to a computer. The computer then sends the appropriate signals to electrode patches on his spine and hand muscles in his forearm.
In addition, tiny sensors at his fingertips and palm allow him to sense touch and pressure.
This “two-arm electronic bridge” forms the novel double neural bypass aimed at restoring both movement and the sense of touch.
Researchers say Thomas is already starting to see some natural recovery from his injuries thanks to this new technology, which could reverse some of the damage for good.
For example, in the lab, he can now move his arms whenever he wants to and feel his sister’s touch as she holds his hand. This is the first time he has felt anything since his accident.
In addition, his arm strength has more than doubled, and he’s beginning to experience new sensations in his forearm and wrist, even when the system is off.
The hope is that the brain, body, and spinal cord will relearn how to communicate, and new pathways will be formed at the injury site thanks to the double neural bypass.
Although the results of the study are encouraging, a lot more research needs to be done before this technology is proven and widely available. A spokesperson tells TwP that if progress continues, funding remains available, and the trials are successful, there could be a product for sale to the general public within the next five to 10 years.