Experimental Surgery Aims to Revive a Paralyzed Limb

Doctors will attempt to reanimate a patient’s paralyzed arm with a pioneering surgery that involves capturing signals from his brain and restoring movement through a fine network of electronics linked to arm muscles.
The new effort, being planned by researchers at Case Western Reserve University, will use a brain computer interface, or BCI, developed by researchers at Brown University and Massachusetts General Hospital. In previous work, patients have used this interface to control a computer cursor or a robotic arm (see “Brain Chip Helps Quadriplegics Move Robotic Arms with Their Thoughts” and “Patient Shows New Dexterity with a Mind-Controlled Robot Arm”).
The new effort will use the same technology to control the patient’s actual arm with a system called functional electrical stimulation (FES). This will send signals to as many as 18 arm and hand muscles to allow the subject, who is paralyzed from the neck down, to perform tasks such as eating and nose-scratching.
“This will be the first time someone has hooked up a BCI to an FES device,” says Daniel Moran, a neuroscientist at Washington University at St. Louis who is not involved in the study. “They’re putting the whole system together.” The surgery may occur this or next year, according to Case Western researchers.
Muscle activation technology has long been tested in paralyzed patients. Various patients can do things like press a button to activate muscles in their otherwise paralyzed legs to allow them to stand and even move about with a walker, helped along by legs that can stiffen and swing forward. If the patient does not have the use of his hands, activation of paralyzed muscles can be triggered by movements that a patient can control in his arm, cheek, or neck. The new effort will use the brain itself to send these signals.