A new type of prosthetics helped William Kochevar — a man who has been paralyzed from the shoulders down for the last 10 years — regain movement in his right arm and hand, reports a recent study.
This scientific breakthrough employs an experimental technology called "neuroprosthetic," which reinstates muscular and cerebral communication channels via a brain implant.
Kochevar is the first patient to ever test this innovative procedure and observe how the implant — two miniature recording chips embedded in his motor cortex — decodes his brain signals and then feeds them back into 36 electronic sensors in his arm.
Researchers at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation Center, who developed the technology, have started a trial to assess the groundbreaking device, which is designed to enable people with tetraplegia control a computer cursor or even a robotic arm with their thoughts.
Bypassing The Spinal Cord
In a healthy person, movement is created by electrical impulses generated by the brain (in the form of a thought) and transmitted automatically to the limbs through the spinal cord. When the spinal cord is affected or gravely injured, like in the case of tetraplegia, the communication channel is interrupted and the body no longer receives the command to move.
The neuroprosthetic replaces the brain-spinal cord-muscle pathway and uses an algorithm to process neural signals — picked up by the brain implant — and relay them to the electrodes inserted in the upper and lower arm.
"What we are doing is circumventing the spinal cord injury," says Bolu Ajiboye, lead study author and biomedical engineer at CWRU.
This process allows the patient to perform basic voluntary movements, such as drinking coffee or holding a fork — an incredible feat for someone who has fully lost their mobility.
In Kochevar's case, the motion is dictated by a brain-computer interface, which scientists closely monitor. The system makes the electronic sensors react to his thoughts and generate movement in his arm, safely secured in a specially constructed mechanized harness.
The pioneering experiment was featured March 28 in the journal The Lancet.
This extraordinary technological achievement required a great amount of preparation, according to a CWRU news release.
Before he was able to receive the brain implant, Kochevar had to undertake four months of training, so that he could learn how to rein in his neural signals and use them to control a virtual-reality arm on a computer screen.
His ability to move the computer-animated arm gradually increasing, researchers took the experiment to the next phase, testing his capability of moving his own arm and hand.
Through hard work and determination on both parts, the scientists eventually succeeded in restoring Kochevar's will to move, by transmitting the on-screen signals directly to the body.
"This work will hopefully begin to restore the hope of millions of paralyzed individuals that someday they will be able to move freely again," said Benjamin Walter, professor of neurology at CWRU, who is involved in the university's clinical trial and runs the Deep Brain Stimulation Program at UH Cleveland.