The first human trial of brain implants succeeded in getting paralysed patients to operate computers

Human trials of a pioneering device designed to treat the brain with electrical stimulation have yielded some promising results,media New Atlas reported. The implant, called Stentrode, has the potential to treat a variety of neurological disorders, but in these initial trials, it has led to significant improvements in the quality of life of two Australian men with motor neurone disease (MND).

The first human trial of brain implants succeeded in getting paralysed patients to operate computers

As early as 2016, researchers introduced the Stentrode device when researchers in Australia showed a new type of implant in sheep’s brains. The idea is to provide a way to record brain activity and stimulate organs without the need for invasive surgery, in which a piece is carved into the skull to insert wires and electrodes.

Instead, Stentrode can be implanted through a small keyhole int in the neck and X-rayed to guide a matchstick-sized device through the blood vessels until it stays on the motor cortical layer, the brain region responsible for planning and performing voluntary movements. Here, it monitors electrical signals from the brain and stimulates areas of the brain that correspond to specific muscle movements, as demonstrated in preclinical trials in sheep.

The first human trial of brain implants succeeded in getting paralysed patients to operate computers

Stentrode was first implanted in a human patient last August and another in April this year. Both Australian men suffer from MND and both now use the technology at home as part of their daily activities.

In the past six months, a second recipient, Philip O’Keefe, has lost strength and flexibility in his arm as a result of the disease, which slowly kills neurons in the brain and eventually leads to paralysis. This prevented him from using the computer keyboard by hand, but he now finds some success with the Stentrode device.

The implant records his brain activity and wirelessly transmits it to a small receiver worn on his chest, which is then transmitted to a computer, converting the signal into instructions on the screen. Throughout the trial, both subjects were able to use the device to click and zoom in and out in this way, with an accuracy rate of more than 90%. They can also type at a speed of 20 characters per minute.

The first human trial of brain implants succeeded in getting paralysed patients to operate computers

“It’s about retraining your brain and letting it work in a different way,” O’Keefe said. “It’s just concentration, but like cycling, it becomes a second nature.”

O’Keefe is now able to use the Stentrode system to surf the web, write e-mail, do part-time data entry work and view online banking. By thinking about moving his left ankle, he can make a mouse click.

“It’s our first dream to put this technology into practice and now get it clinical and really help someone.” Associate Professor Tom Oxley, a neuroscientist, said he had been studying the Stentrode device at the University of Melbourne since 2011.

Part of Stentrode’s original motivation was to allow paralysed patients to control the robot’s exoskeleton. The researchers say this is still part of a long-term plan, but with more research to explore how to use it for basic computer functions, a third trial participant has accepted their implants. The team hopes to get FDA approval in about five years.

You can hear O’Keefe in the video below, and the study is published in the Journal of Neurotranscing Surgery.