Microchip helps paralyzed man regain arm movement.

Microchip helps paralyzed man regain arm movement.

Revolutionary Breakthrough: Restoring Movement and Feeling in Paralyzed Limbs

Scientists have managed to restore feeling and movement in a man with paralysis.

Health experts have long believed that severe spinal cord injuries irreparably damage the central nervous system, leaving individuals with paralysis without hope for recovery. However, a groundbreaking study conducted by researchers at Northwell Health in New York is challenging this assumption, bringing about a game-changing breakthrough. These scientists have successfully restored feeling and movement in the arm and hand of a man suffering from paralysis by implanting microchips into his brain and utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) to rebuild connections between his brain, spinal cord, and body.

In the study, which took place in March 2023, bioelectric medicine researchers, surgeons, and engineers at Northwell’s Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research performed a 15-hour open-brain surgery on Keith Thomas, a man who had been living with paralysis since 2020. This novel clinical trial aimed to enable Thomas to move and feel with his paralyzed arm and hand. The team developed AI algorithms, brain implants, and innovative stimulation technology to create the first-of-its-kind “double neural bypass.” This electronic bridge facilitated the flow of information throughout Thomas’s body, spinal cord, and brain, restoring communication between these crucial components.

The principal investigator of the trial, Professor Chad Bouton, who is a prominent figure in the Institute of Bioelectronic Medicine at the Feinstein Institutes, expressed his excitement about this pioneering accomplishment, stating, “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.”

A Paradigm Shift: Restoring Lasting Movement

Previous studies conducted by European researchers in 2022 identified neurons associated with walking and successfully helped individuals improve or regain their ability to walk. However, these participants had to be supported by a robotic interface, limiting the scope of their recovery. In contrast, Professor Bouton’s previous research involved a single neural bypass that allowed people to move paralyzed limbs with their thoughts but did not restore feeling and movement or promote long-lasting recovery. This groundbreaking study aimed to restore lasting physical movement beyond the laboratory and help Thomas regain his sense of touch.

To achieve this, Dr. Adam Stein, Northwell Health’s chair of physical medicine and rehabilitation, collaborated with clinicians and researchers from the Feinstein Institutes to map out Thomas’s brain. Using functional MRIs, they located the areas responsible for arm movement and the sensation of touch in his hand. The MRIs provided the necessary information to insert motor and sensory electrodes precisely.

A Surgery Guided by Real-Time Feedback

Armed with this critical information, the surgical team embarked on a rigorous 15-hour surgery at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York. During certain stages of the procedure, Thomas was awake and able to communicate with the doctors, describing the sensations he was feeling in his hands.

Dr. Ashesh Mehta, one of the lead surgeons in the procedure, elaborated on this unique approach, stating, “Because we had Keith’s images and he was talking to us during parts of his surgery, we knew exactly where to place the brain implants.” The surgical team inserted two chips in the region responsible for arm movement and three more in the area associated with feeling and touch in the fingers.

Thought-Driven Therapy and the Neural Bypass

Following the surgery, Thomas was connected to a computer that utilized AI to capture and translate his thoughts into action. This thought-driven therapy formed the foundation of the double neural bypass approach. The bypass intercepted and interpreted the subject’s intentions, sending electrical signals from the brain implant to the computer. The computer then directed signals to electrode patches placed over Thomas’s spine and hand muscles, stimulating function.

Sensors placed at Thomas’s fingertips and palm transmitted touch and pressure information to his brain, effectively restoring sensation. Professor Bouton highlighted the impact of this technology, stating, “When the study participant 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.”

The extraordinary success of the double neural bypass enabled Thomas to move his arms voluntarily and feel touch for the first time since his accident when he felt his sister’s touch.

New Strength, Continuing Results

In addition to restoring movement and feeling, the researchers discovered that the double neural bypass sparked some natural recovery in Thomas’s injuries, potentially reversing some of the damage. Since the beginning of the study, Thomas has more than doubled his arm strength and is also experiencing new sensations in his wrist and forearm, even when the system is turned off.

The Northwell clinicians hope that this revolutionary procedure will pave the way for the creation of new communication pathways at the site of injury, allowing the brain, spinal cord, and body to regenerate connections. Ultimately, they envision a future where bioelectronic medicine enables individuals with injuries and diseases to be treated using their own nerves, eliminating the need for pharmaceutical intervention.

Professor Bouton summed up the significance of this breakthrough, stating, “This type of thought-driven therapy is a game-changer. Our goal is to use this technology one day to give people living with paralysis the ability to live fuller, more independent lives.”

Understanding Spinal Cord Injury

Every year, an estimated 302,000 people in the United States experience traumatic spinal cord injuries, with 18,000 new cases arising annually. Unfortunately, more than half of these individuals may not regain full function. Severe or complete spinal cord injuries result in the inability to transmit signals below the site of injury, leading to paralysis and a loss of sensation beyond that point. Over 100 million people worldwide live with paralysis or other movement impairments, underscoring the urgency of developing innovative treatments and solutions.

Through the groundbreaking work conducted by researchers at Northwell Health, there is renewed hope for individuals living with paralysis. By linking the brain, body, and spinal cord together electronically, the possibility of restoring lasting movement and sensation is becoming a reality. This impressive breakthrough sets the stage for future advancements in bioelectronic medicine, with the potential to revolutionize the lives of millions.