AI-powered brain implant restores a paralyzed man’s ability to feel and move

An AI-powered brain implant helps a quadriplegia patient regain sensations and movement for the first time after a diving accident in 2020. Can this implant work for other paralysis patients?
Rupendra Brahambhatt
Keith moving his arms
Keith moving his arms

Northwell Health 

Scientists at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research have re-established the connection between the brain, body, and spinal cord of a person living with quadriplegia (paralysis of all four limbs and trunk) due to a diving accident in 2020. 

They installed an implant inside the patient’s brain. The implant comprises five microchips and uses an AI program to convert the patient’s thoughts into actions. The brain implant lets the patient feel sensations and move some of his body parts. 

“There was a time that I didn’t know if I was even going to live or if I wanted to, frankly. And now, I can feel the touch of someone holding my hand. It’s overwhelming,” said Keith Thomas, the patient. 

AI-powered brain implant restores a paralyzed man’s ability to feel and move
Keith's sister touches his hand.

According to CDC, paralysis affects over five million people in the US alone. There are hardly any treatment options available that can significantly improve the condition of such patients. 

However, the new implant raises hope as it shows a promising way to reconstruct lost neural pathways and restore normal brain and spinal cord activity in patients with paralysis. 

Installing the implant at the right spot

The diving accident damaged Keith’s C4 and C5 vertebrae (the spine segments in the lower neck region), leaving him completely paralyzed below the chest region. While Keith was admitted to the hospital, he learned about the implant trial at Feinstein and became a participant.

The researchers needed to perform complex brain surgery to install the implant, but before that, they wanted to know which areas of Keith’s brain were affected. So they first conducted MRI scans and then studied his brain in detail.

Next, they performed a 15-hour surgery on March 9, 2023, at North Shore University Hospital, during which they were trying to identify the right spot for the implant to work. Keith was also awake during the surgery, telling them whether or not he felt any sensations when the implant was placed in a particular region of his brain. 

Dr. Ashest Mehta, one of the surgeons who performed the surgery, said, “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. We inserted two chips in the area responsible for movement and three more in the part of the brain responsible for touch and feeling in the fingers.” 

Keith’s condition has drastically improved since the surgery. For the first time in the last three years, he can feel the sensation when someone touches or holds his hand, and he can also move his arms whenever he wants to do so.   

Using AI for thought-driven therapy

The researchers connected Keith’s head implants to computers in their lab so that the AI could convert his thoughts into actions. Once the commands (for the action) are clear, the microchips inside the brain that act as a double neural bypass establish the required connection between the brain and spinal cord for the action, enabling Keith to feel or move.

“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,” said Chad Bouton, one of the researchers and a professor at the Feinstein Institutes.  

Our goal is to use this technology one day to give people living with paralysis the ability to live fuller, more independent lives, ” he added.

Interestingly, even when Keith’s head is not plugged into the lab computer, he sometimes feels new sensations in his wrist and other arm parts. Plus, the overall strength of his arms has increased by more than 100 percent after the surgery.

While talking about the impact of the implant on his life, Keith said, “The only thing I want to do is to help others. That’s always been the thing I’m best at. If this can help someone even more than it’s helped me somewhere down the line, it’s all worth it.” 

Hopefully, the brain implant will make paralysis treatable and help millions of other patients in the future.

For more information about future trials and other things related to the novel brain implant, you can check this press release from Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research.

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