For the first time in the world, a quadriplegic man now can move his arm and hand by his own volition, thanks to an electronic implant in his brain.
The man — Bill Kochevar, 56 — was paralyzed in a cycling accident nearly a decade ago. He has no feeling or mobility below his shoulders without the new implant technology.
Earlier versions of the technology have allowed quadriplegics to use their thoughts to control external devices such as a robotic arm or a sleeve linked with electrodes to brain implants, or neuroprosthetics.
But this is the first time that brain implants have been used to help someone move his own body.
“Our study is the first in the world, to my knowledge, to take someone paralyzed and give him the ability to both reach and grasp objects … so that he can regain the ability to perform functional activities of daily living,” Dr. Abidemi Bolu Ajiboye, the lead author of the study, told CNN.
Dubbed BrainGate2, the research was published in The Lancet medical journal Tuesday.
“People have to do stuff for me that I can’t do myself,” Mr. Kochevar said in a video produced by Case Western Reserve University, which hosts the study. “They have to turn me every two hours, if I want water they have to give me water. This research has enhanced my ability to be able to do things.”
An estimated 282,000 people with a spinal cord injury live in the United States, according to data compiled by the national SCI database. Car crashes are the leading cause of spinal cord injury, followed by falls and acts of violence, most often gunshot wounds.
Researchers inserted two implants into the motor cortex area of Mr. Kochevar’s brain. The implants communicate with corresponding electrodes surgically placed in the upper and lower parts of his right arm, hand, elbow and shoulder muscles. His arm then was placed in a mobile sling (also connected to a brain implant) to support its weight against gravity.
Researchers demonstrated movements for Mr. Kochevar to perform and monitored how his brain interpreted the commands to create an algorithm for the motions. When Mr. Kochevar thinks about repeating the movements, his brain signals activate the electrodes in his arm.
“We’ve been able to take the electrical signals that represent his thoughts and use that to control stimulation of his arm and hand,” Dr. Ajiboye said in the video interview.
Slowly and deliberately, Mr. Kochevar moved his hand back and forth and up and down in the sling. The technology has allowed Mr. Kochevar to feed himself a pretzel and lift a glass of water to his mouth.
“This research has enhanced my ability to do things,” he said.
Mr. Kochevar, a Navy veteran, joined the study after learning about the research from the VA Medical Center in Cleveland. The study is funded by the Department of Veteran Affairs and the National Institute of Health.
“My father said, ‘You really want to do this?’ I said ‘yes.’ Somebody has to do research, if no one does research, things don’t get done,” Mr. Kochevar said.
“Now we can tell the world it’s possible to reconnect the brain, and make the arm move again.”