Two cutting-edge clinical trials are using artificial intelligence to help patients with paralysis regain movement in their body and reclaim their voice.
For years, Keith Thomas has been unable to move his arms and hands after a diving accident left him paralyzed from the chest down.
“I went to dive into the pool aggressively, as usual, and then I just blacked out. And the next thing you know, there was a helicopter on the front lawn,” Thomas said.
Now, a simple gesture like shaking someone’s hand gives him tremendous hope.
“When I feel the sense of touch, it’s like, it’s unreal because I haven’t felt that in three years now,” Keith Thomas said.
Through a new procedure called a double neural bypass, doctors at Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in New York implanted five tiny computer chips in Thomas’ brain that can literally read his mind.
“This is the first time the brain has been linked directly to spinal cord stimulation and to the body to restore movement and the sense of touch where the user’s thoughts are actually driving that therapy,” said Professor Chad Bouton, the vice president of Advanced Engineering and director of the Neural Bypass and Brain-Computer Interface Laboratory at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research.
The 15-hour surgery was a delicate dance with Thomas awake for part of the procedure, giving surgeons feedback in real-time.
“I placed it right over one area and he said, ‘I feel my thumb.’ I said, ‘What part of your thumb?’ He said, ‘My thumb tip, the inside of my thumb tip.’ And I said, ‘Oh, we found it. We got it,'” said Dr. Ashesh Mehta, a neurosurgeon and professor.
Now, if Thomas thinks of grabbing a bottle, electrical signals are sent to a patch on his neck or arm, bypassing the injured sections of his spine to reconnect with his brain.
“Now I’m thinking and I’m seeing my thoughts like happen in real time onscreen,” Thomas said. “It just changed my life.”
AI isn’t just helping patients regain movement.
In a separate study published in the journal Nature, researchers from UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley are using artificial intelligence to help a paralyzed mother reclaim her voice.
Ann Johnson suffered a stroke almost 20 years ago and cannot move her body or her mouth.
Now, she’s able to have a conversation with her husband through a digital avatar.
The technology decodes Johnson’s brain signals, turning them into sentences and facial expressions through 250 electrodes that are implanted onto the surface of her brain that’s responsible for speech.
For weeks, Johnson helped train the AI algorithms to recognize her brain activity by repeating different words and phrases.
“A lot of my inspiration actually comes from seeing patients and feeling frustration that we yet don’t have treatments for helping them,” said Dr. Edward Chang, the chair of neurological surgery at UCSF.
UCSF researchers say the AI system is faster and more accurate than other devices that allow paralysis patients to communicate. Their next step is to create a wireless version of the device.
Both studies, though, have tremendous promise using AI technology that could one day help countless people with neurological / movement disorders.