Groundbreaking brain implant allows paralyzed patients to regain use of electronics

MELBOURNE, Australia — Paralysis is a devastatingly isolating condition. For patients who lose the ability to use their arms or legs, the simplest tasks can become near impossible obstacles. A team in Australia is giving hope back to those who can’t use their arms. Their study reveals two patients have had a wireless device successfully implanted into their brains. It’s allowing them to overcome amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is slowly robbing them of the use of their limbs.

Researchers from the University of Melbourne say Stentrode, a tiny implant the size of a paperclip, allows patients dealing with paralysis to email, text, and even shop online. Stentrode restores the transmission of brain impulses throughout the body. Using eye-tracking technology, the user can signal what actions they want an electronic device to do without the use of their hands.

“This is the first time an operation of this kind has been done, so we couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be problems, but in both cases the surgery has gone better than we had hoped,” Professor Peter Mitchell of The Royal Melbourne Hospital says in a university release.

Groundbreaking procedure

Prof. Mitchell implanted the Stentrode in an area near the brain’s motor cortex. Unlike other major surgeries, the team only needed to make a small “keyhole” incision in each patient’s neck before guiding the device into place. Even more encouraging, the patients needed little recovery time after the procedure.

“The procedure isn’t easy, in each surgery there were differences depending on the patient’s anatomy, however in both cases the patients were able to leave the hospital only a few days later, which also demonstrates the quick recovery from the surgery,” Prof. Mitchell explains.

Once back home, the ALS patients used Stentrode to navigate a computer-based operating system in place of a keyboard. The eye-tracker helped them operate the computer’s mouse cursor. Both participants also began machine learning-assisted training so they could get the handle of various mouse-clicking actions, including zooming in and out.

Stentrode brain implant producing amazing results

While it’s still in the experimental phase, both patients have had tremendous success operating the wireless implant. The patients achieved an average click accuracy of 92 and 93 percent, respectively. They were also able to type between 14 and 20 characters per minute with the predictive texting features turned off.

“Observing the participants use the system to communicate and control a computer with their minds, independently and at home, is truly amazing,” University of Melbourne Associate Professor Nicholas Opie says.

“Over the last eight years we have drawn on some of the world’s leading medical and engineering minds to create an implant that enables people with paralysis to control external equipment with the power of thought. We are pleased to report that we have achieved this.”

Researchers caution that the technology is still years away from being publicly available, but add the goal of overcoming paralysis is a little closer to reality today.

The study appears in the Journal of NeuroInterventional Surgery.