Keith Thomas of New York was involved in a driving accident back in 2020 that damaged his spine’s C4 and C5 vertebrae, leading to a total loss of feeling and movement from the chest down. Recently, however, Thomas had been able to move his arm at will and feel his sister holding his hand, thanks to the AI brain implant technology developed by Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institute of Bioelectronic Medicine.
The research team first spent months mapping his brain with MRIs to find the exact parts of his brain responsible for arm movement and the sense of touch in his hands. Then, four months ago, surgeons performed a 15-hour procedure to implant microchips in his brain — Thomas was even awake for some parts so he could tell them what sensations he felt in his hand as they examined parts of the organ .
While the microchips are inside his body, the team also installed external ports on top of his head. These ports connect to a computer with artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms the team developed to interpret his thoughts and translate them into action. The researchers call this approach “thought-driven therapy” because it all starts with the patient’s intentions. If he thinks about moving his hand, for example, his brain implant sends signals to the computer, which then sends signals to the electrode patches on his spine and hand muscles to stimulate movement. They also attached sensors to his fingertips and palms to stimulate sensation.
Thanks to this system, he was able to move his arm at will and feel his sister holding his hand in the laboratory. While he had to be connected to the computer for these milestones, the researchers say Thomas has shown signs of improvement even when the system is turned off. His arm strength has apparently “more than doubled” since the study began, and his forearm and wrist could now feel some new sensations. If all goes well, the team’s mind-based therapy may help him regain more of his sense of touch and mobility.
Although the approach has a way to go, the team behind it hopes it can change the lives of people living with paralysis. Chad Bouton, the technology’s developer and principal investigator of the clinical trial, said:
“This is the first time the brain, body and spinal cord have been connected electronically in a paralyzed person to restore lasting movement and sensation. 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. This type of mind-driven therapy is a game-changer. Our goal is to one day use this technology to give people living with paralysis the ability to live longer fulfilling, more independent lives.”