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AI-enabled brain implant helps patient regain feeling and movement

The researchers hope it could help patients living with paralysis 'live fuller, more independent lives.'

Northwell Health’s The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research

Keith Thomas from New York was involved in a driving accident back in 2020 that injured his spine's C4 and C5 vertebrae, leading to a total loss in feeling and movement from the chest down. Recently, though, Thomas had been able to move his arm at will and feel his sister hold his hand, thanks to the AI brain implant technology developed by the Northwell Health's Feinstein Institute of Bioelectronic Medicine.

The research team first spent months mapping his brain with MRIs to pinpoint the exact parts of his brain responsible for arm movements and the sense of touch in his hands. Then, four months ago, surgeons performed a 15-hour procedure to implant microchips into his brain — Thomas was even awake for some parts so he could tell them what sensations he was feeling in his hand as they probed parts of the organ.

While the microchips are inside his body, the team also installed external ports on top of his head. Those ports connect to a computer with the artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that the team developed to interpret his thoughts and turn them into action. The researchers call this approach "thought-driven therapy," because it all starts with the patient's intentions. If he thinks of wanting to move his hand, for instance, his brain implant sends signals to the computer, which then sends signals to the electrode patches on his spine and hand muscles in order to stimulate movement. They attached sensors to his fingertips and palms, as well, to stimulate sensation.

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Thanks to this system, he was able to move his arm at will and feel his sister holding his hand in the lab. While he needed to be attached to the computer for those milestones, the researchers say Thomas has shown signs of recovery even when the system is 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 thought-driven therapy could help him regain more of his sense of touch and mobility.

While the approach has a ways to go, the team behind it is hopeful that it could change the lives of people living with paralysis. Chad Bouton, the technology's developer and the principal investigator of the clinical trial, said:

"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. 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 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."