Electric Brain Implants Helped A Paralyzed Man Feel Again

A new study reports that microelectrode implants can stimulate otherwise unresponsive parts of the brain.
October 13, 2016, 4:05pm
Rob Gaunt prepares Nathan Copeland for sensory test. Inset: A microelectrode array implant. Image: UPMC/Pitt Health Sciences

Paralysis, consider yourself defeated. Using brain implants, researchers tricked a man's brain into feeling sensation in his hands after a decade without feeling—which is as close to life-changing as we can imagine.

A new study published today in Science Translational Medicine describes the procedure and hints that it could be a big step forward in helping paraplegics live a normal life.

"The ultimate goal is to create a system which moves and feels just like a natural arm would," said Dr. Robert Gaunt, leader of the study, in a University of Pittsburg release. "We have a long way to go to get there, but this is a great start."

It works like this: Two microelectrode patches, each with 32 electrodes in a grid pattern, were implanted in the brain of a 28-year-old who didn't have any sensation in his arms and fingers. To get different sensations in different parts of the hand, various electrodes were lit up with electrical signals.

These are the parts of the brain that would have been stimulated when, for example, the forefinger touched something. By faking the signal, the patient feels actual sensation in that finger.

"I can feel just about every finger—it's a really weird sensation," Nathan Copeland, who underwent this procedure, said in the release. "Sometimes it feels electrical and sometimes its pressure, but for the most part, I can tell most of the fingers with definite precision. It feels like my fingers are getting touched or pushed."

While the patients don't gain feeling from their hands directly—after all, the neural pathways there have been severed —electrical signals in certain parts of the brain tricks the brain into thinking certain fingers are feeling pressure, heat or sensation. For all intents and purposes, the right signals sent when someone is touching an object allows that person to feel touch again, even if the sensation is synthetic.

The development is particularly important when combined with brain-powered robotic prosthetics. Prosthetics that are controlled by thought have shown progress and have given some paraplegics the ability to regain partial movement, the study stated.

But the body has a tough time readjusting when the only indication that you've touched something is sight. The addition of stimuli, such as feeling pressure when fingers touch ones another, increased patients' accuracy when using these robotic prosthetics and allowed for more natural movements.

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