March 29, 2017 -- A man paralyzed from the shoulders down regained some use of his hand and arm after a pioneering procedure reconnected his brain with his muscles.
Bill Kochevar, 56, was able to feed himself after scientists used a system to decode brain signals and transmit them to sensors in the arm. Kochevar suffered a spinal cord injury from a bike accident 8 years ago.
It's the first time a person with complete paralysis has been able to reach and grasp objects using their own brain power, say researchers at Case Western Reserve University, who pioneered the technique.
Lead author Bolu Ajiboye, PhD, says although the research is in an early stage and based on one person, it “could begin to transform the lives of people living with paralysis.”
The scientists used a technique called neuroprosthetics to restore Kochevar’s movement. It does not repair spinal injuries. Instead, it uses electrical activity in the brain to trigger body movement that is passed on to implanted sensors in his arm.
Kochevar had brain surgery to implant sensors in the area of his brain responsible for hand movement.
Then scientists placed 36 muscle-stimulating electrodes into his upper and lower arm that helped restore finger, thumb, wrist, elbow, and shoulder movements.
The researchers then connected the brain computer to the sensors to produce muscular contractions. This helped Kochevar complete the movements he was thinking of.
Although he needed support to prevent his arm from dropping, he was able to carry out some day-to-day tasks such as feeding himself with mashed potatoes and drinking a cup of coffee using a straw.
"It’s probably a good thing that I’m making it move without having to really concentrate hard at it,” Kochevar said. “I just think 'out,' and it just goes."
Steve Perlmutter, MD, of the University of Washington, calls the research “groundbreaking,” but he says it is not yet suitable for everyday use. For instance, the movements made by the volunteer were rough and slow and needed constant visual checking.
"But," he adds, "it is an exciting demonstration nonetheless, and the future of motor neuroprosthetics to overcome paralysis is brighter."