World’s First Neuroprosthetic Procedure Allows Paralysed Man to Feed Himself

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Wednesday 5th April 2017

A man paralysed from the neck down has been given the ability to feed move his arm and head to feed himself using his own arm, with the help of electronic implants in his brain linked to a series of implants in his arm.

This breakthrough is the first example of regaining the ability to control a limb using the brain alone, and allowed for a surprisingly high level of accurate movement of elbow, wrist and hand joints, which allowed for a 53 year old man to feed himself mashed potato and drink coffee from a cup he was holding himself to his lips despite losing all ability to move his limbs.

The man in question was a 53 year old male participant in a clinical trial for BrainGate2, who after a cycling accident ten years ago suffered from tetraplegia, the inability to feel or move any part of the body below the neck. BrainGate2 is a study looking at the safety of implanted devices in the brain, aimed at enabling people also suffering from tetraplegia to use their brains to control parts of their body or external devices. The implant was fitted in December 2014 and just over two years later (717 days to be precise), a breakthrough was reached which allowed him to consistently control the arm, including most importantly, multiple joint movements at once and finally, eat with a fork.

The technology works by implanting a brain controlled functional electrical stimulation (an FES device) into the man’s brain, which connects to 36 electrodes implanted into his arm that can electrically stimulate arm muscles. All of this was connected to a computer that translated impulses from the part of the brain usually responsible for hand movements into commands to move the arm. At first this was tested with a “virtual” 3D image of an arm before testing the principle with the man’s own arm.

The results are fairly dramatic, with consistent abilities to control both the virtual arm and complete a series of single and multiple joint movements, including reaching out to drink a cup of coffee and ultimately feeding himself.

There are of course caveats to a world-first breakthrough, namely that this was a proof of concept study to demonstrate whether it would be possible to use a brain implant linked to a computer to electrically stimulate muscles, and there is no way of knowing as yet whether it will work for all patients with paralysis. Currently it is only legally allowed to be used as part of the ongoing clinical trial, which needs to confirm fitting an implant into a person’s brain is safe and effective enough before taking any further steps.

The next step would be to keep studying and developing the concept and seeing if it works for more people and people with different conditions. It is exciting to consider a world where someone can regain the ability to move their arm and hand again, and an advancement like this brings us closer to that possibility.