In a world first, a man who was paralyzed from the shoulders down has been able to control his right arm with just the power of thought. This is the first time that anyone with complete paralysis has had use of their arms and hands restored by using brain waves. The results have been published in The Lancet.
Bill Kochevar from Cleveland, Ohio became paralyzed eight years ago, after crashing into the back of a truck while cycling. Since then, he has had to rely on others to do many tasks that most of us take for granted, such as simply taking a drink of water. Now, after placing sensors in his brain that connect to electrodes in his arm, he has been able to not only move his arm and hand, but can even drink and eat again.
“For somebody who’s been injured eight years and couldn’t move, being able to move just that little bit is awesome to me,” Kochevar said. “It’s better than I thought it would be.”
The incredible results were achieved by inserting 96-channel electrode arrays into the region of Kochevar’s motor cortex that is responsible for arm and hand movement. These arrays then record the brain signals created when Kochevar thinks about moving his right hand, and sends it to a brain-computer interface. This decodes the information contained in the signals and then passes it on to electrodes in his arm, which then electrically stimulate the muscles.
To prepare himself for the full procedure, Kochevar first used the implants in his brain to control a virtual reality arm. For four months he trained with this so that the computer would recognize which brain signals corresponded with which movements, such as twisting the wrist or gripping the fingers. Only then did he have the full 36 electrodes implanted into his upper and lower arm.
The current setup requires a support for Kochevar’s arm to counter gravity, which is also controlled by his thoughts. After eight years of no movement, his arm had also suffered muscular atrophy, and so required 45 weeks of exercise, performed by the researchers, in order to restore his strength, range of motion, and endurance. But the results have been more than worth it.
The technology is still in its early stages, but the researchers, from the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, hope that they will be able to streamline it. In the future, they envisage that it could become routine for paralyzed patients, that the signals from brain to muscle could be sent wirelessly, and that the implants could be inserted under the skin.
It is thought that this groundbreaking new proof-of-concept demonstration could pave the way for more routine procedures in the future.