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AI, implants form ‘digital bridge’ to help paralyzed man move arms, hands

By Nick Watt, CNN

(CNN) — A 46-year-old Swiss man who was paralyzed after falling on ice has regained some movement after a world-first surgery that installed an implant on his brain that uses artificial intelligence to read his thoughts, his intentions to move, and transfers them to a second implant in his abdomen that stimulates the right muscles to make parts of his body move as his brain wants them to.

“Thought-driven movement” is how Onward, the Dutch company behind this technology, describes the pioneering process.

“While it is still too early to provide full results, we are pleased to report that the technology works as expected and appears to successfully reanimate his paralyzed arms, hands, and fingers,” the company said.

More than a quarter-million Americans have some degree of paralysis because of damage to their spinal cord, so technology like this could, one day, be life-changing for many.

“If you are paralyzed with your hand and you can just open and close, it’s a huge change. Suddenly, you can eat. You are gaining independence,” said Dr. Gregoire Courtine, the French neuroscientist who had the idea for what he calls a “digital bridge” between brain and body over a decade ago. Then, they had to wait for technology to catch up with what was initially just a sci-fi dream.

“We remove a little bit of bone; we replace this piece of bone by this set of electrodes, and then we close the skin,” said Dr. Jocelyne Bloch, a Swiss neurosurgeon who performed the surgery and is Courtine’s collaborator. “This implant is going to work wirelessly and activate the spinal cord stimulation.”

Earlier in the summer, Bloch and Courtine landed another world first: They installed similar devices in a Gert-Jan Oskam, a Dutch man who had lost the use of his legs in a bike accident, to help him walk naturally again.

“Now, the implants are able to capture my thoughts of walking and able to transfer to the stimulator in my lower back,” Oskam told CNN for a story about artificial intelligence that will air on “The Whole Story” in October.

He does not walk perfectly with the implant. He might never walk perfectly. But he can walk, and the more he does, the more his body is actually repairing itself. “I spoke with my boss about a desk to rise so I can stand, do standing computer work,” he said. “In the near future, I want to go for that.”

Courtine said the findings were unexpected. “What we discover is that when using this system for a long period of time, through training, nerve fibers start growing again. So we repair the nervous system with this technology. … That was like the dream, regenerative medicine!”

Restoring function to arms and hands is, they say, harder than restoring the ability to walk.

“It’s more refined,” said Dave Marver, Onward’s CEO. “Epecially if you want to extend the restoration of movement to the fingers and not just the arm. So, help them grasp something or help them use individual digits.”

Some ethicists are raising concerns that such thought-reading technology could be used maliciously to invade people’s privacy. Courtine and Bloch point out that their implant decodes only thoughts related to movement.

“We don’t understand enough probably of the neural code to really extract your thoughts,” Courtine said. “Not yet, at least. Maybe you will see it happening.”

Bloch added, “I think there are easier way to harm someone than trying to go into his system to block it, you know?”

This latest surgery, to restore hand and arm movement, is part of trials that might last a few more years.

“We’ll learn a lot from that first person,” Marver said. “Then we’ll expand to four or five people, and then if that goes well, we’ll conduct a global pivotal trial and hopefully get FDA approval and make it available.”

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