Individuals living in a paralyzed state can go their entire lives trapped in their own body. Despite capable brain function, there is a disconnect when it comes to performing even the most simple movements. However, for the first time, that is about to change.
For the first time in eight years, a paralyzed man in Cleveland, Ohio fed himself dinner. This simple act has never before been possible, but due to the recent invention of a brain implant, there is now a way for the paralyzed to turn their thoughts into actions.
Brain-computer interface technology has been tested for some time by BrainGate, a group of researchers looking to give paralyzed individuals more mobility. This most recent development uses two small implants that act as sensors. These sensors are fitted with 96 electrodes but are approximately the size of a baby aspirin, working to detect activity in the part of the brain that controls movement.
The sensors take the signals they receive from the brain and send them through a computer, which then sends those signals to an electrical stimulation system. This then routes the signals to about 30 wires that are implanted in the individual’s arm. This allows the thought to travel from the brain to the limb in order to complete movement.
“We have an algorithm that sort of transforms those neural signals into the movements he intended to make,” said Robert Kirsch, professor of Biomedical Engineering at Case Western.
Bill Kochevar from Cleveland, Ohio was the test subject for this type of device. In previous tests, he was able to control a virtual reality arm using a similar system. After success in that attempt, Kochevar underwent rehabilitation to use the muscles in his arms that had atrophied over years since the cycling accident that left him paralyzed. The rehabilitation process took 45 weeks, but now, thanks to the technology from BrainGate, Kochevar is able to use those muscles for the first time in a long time.
“I think what we’ve done, though, is shown that we can put this all together and it’s feasible,” said Kirsch. “We can actually record signals from his brain, determine what he’s trying to do and make that happen.”
In addition to feeding himself a dinner of mashed potatoes, Kochevar is also able to do things like touch his face and drink through a straw. Use of the brain-computer interface has created abilities for him that he previously thought to be gone forever.
This experiment has been ongoing for years now, beginning with the first experiment to move a remote hand. The electrodes were implanted on Kochevar’s brain in 2014. After his long period of rehabilitation, the fruits of his efforts, and the efforts of the Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation Center, have been realized.
“There are lots of endless possibilities,” Kochevar said. “It’s been wonderful and I’m really happy to do this.”
The technology is currently in the experimental phase and will continue to be developed.