limbs
March 29, 2017

New device lets paralyzed man move his arm with just his thoughts

A paralyzed 56-year-old Cleveland man has purportedly become the first person ever to regain the use of his hand and arm with the assistance of a brain-computer interface, according to new led by doctors from Case Western Reserve University and two Ohio-based hospitals.

The patient’s name is Bill Kochevar, and according to NPR, he was paralyzed after suffering a bicycle accident in his 40s. He had been unable to move any part of his body below the shoulder for eight years, but a pair of temporary implanted technologies has helped to change all that.

Kochevar suffered damage to his spine in that accident, and as a result, there was no way for his brain to deliver signals to his limbs. However, researchers from Case Western, the Cleveland VA Medical Center, and University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center have helped him regain arm and hand movement thanks to an experimental piece of technology called BrainGate2.

BrainGate2, the university explained in a statement, is a brain-computer interface with recording electrodes placed under the patient’s skull, and a functional electrical stimulation (FES) unit that activates his arm and hand, allowing his brain and paralyzed muscles to reconnect. The result, as seen in a YouTube video, is that Kochevar could move his arm simply by thinking about it.

Using the technology, Kochevar was able to eat a pretzel and a bowl of mashed potatoes, drink a cup of coffee, and scratch his nose. “For somebody who’s been injured eight years and couldn’t move, being able to move just that little bit is awesome to me,” he said. “It’s better than I thought it would be.”

‘A major step forward’ in treating paralysis, say doctors

As the doctors explained in a paper published Wednesday in The Lancet, Kochevar was 53 years of age and suffering from a cervical spinal cord injury when he was recruited into the BrainGate2 clinical trial. He received two intracortical microelectrode arrays in the hand region of his motor cortex, followed by three dozen implanted percutaneous electrodes in his upper arm.

Those electrodes, the study authors explained, were designed to stimulate his hand, elbow, and shoulder muscles. Kochevar used a motorized mobile arm support for assistance, and the device was able to decode neural signals from the brain and perform the desired movements. His case is believed to mark the first time that a person suffering from severe chronic paralysis was able to use his or her own brain activity to perform functional hand and arm movements.

The first implant occurred in December 2014, and while muscle atrophy from eight years of inactivity required extensive rehab, Kochevar was able to begin point-to-point target acquisition sessions 311 days later, first with a virtual arm and then later with his own limb. Four-hundred and 63 days later, he was successful in 11 of 12 attempts to reach for a coffee cup, and 717 days after the implant, he was feeding himself, the doctors reported in their study.

“He’s really breaking ground for the spinal cord injury community,” senior author Bob Kirsch, chairman of Case Western’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and executive director of the FES Center, said in a statement. “This is a major step toward restoring some independence.”

“Every day, most of us take for granted that when we will to move, we can move any part of our body with precision and control in multiple directions and those with traumatic spinal cord injury or any other form of paralysis cannot,” added Benjamin Walter, medical director of the Deep Brain Stimulation Program at UH Cleveland Medical Center. “The ultimate hope of any of these individuals is to restore this function. By restoring the communication of the will to move from the brain directly to the body this work will hopefully begin to restore the hope of millions of paralyzed individuals that someday they will be able to move freely again.”

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Image credit: Cleveland FES Center