A person with a spinal cord injury could improve their ability to grip and move household objects by using an electrical stimulation device controlled by their own thoughts, according to a study presented at the Association of Academic Physiatrists Annual Meeting in Atlanta. The study suggests that this new technology could one day allow people with disabilities to live more independently and enhance their quality of life .
People with tetraplegia have lost upper limb strength and dexterity, which has a severe impact on their independence and quality of life. New technology that connects to person's brain to implant functional electrical stimulation orthotics device on their hands could restore manual dexterity and grip strength so they could perform simple daily tasks like holding a toothbrush without help.
"Individuals with cervical spinal cord injury identify recovery from the use of their hands as the single most impactful way that neurotechnology could change their lives," says Marcie Bockbrader, assistant professor, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation; The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. "Giving a person back their hands reduces dependence on others. It makes it possible to do the little things – like cutting food, or opening a door – that is essential to being able to take care of oneself."
Dr. Bockbrader and her research team surgically implanted electrical stimulation orthotics device into the hand of a 26-year-old man with C5-level, nonspastic tetraplegia following a spinal cord injury. I have practiced using the device three times a week for four hours each session for more than 1,000 days. The research team ran him through standardized tests of upper limb motor ability and functional participation to see how well the system improved his grip strength, quickness and other basic skills.
By using this device, the man's upper limb motor ability improved dramatically according to several standardized tests. He was able to improve his ability to grip and manipulate basic objects, and even showed that he could perform ordinary tasks with his hands at the speed and dexterity levels of healthy individuals. He could move objects of different sizes and weights. He also demonstrated that he could imagine different hand positions to proportionally adjust and control different hand movements.
"Our study demonstrated that patients with tetraplegia could be able to restore some of their skilled hand function with an implanted device that allows them to control movements with their own thoughts," says Dr. Bockbrader. "Although this technology must be refined and tested before it can go from the lab to the public, it may one day offer people with disabilities a way to live and work more independently, and enable them to perform daily tasks like brushing their teeth or making breakfast on their own. "
"The BCI-FES system did not improve one of its standardized test scores, so more research and development is needed to refine these orthotics," says. Dr. Bockbrader. "Our next steps are to work with our partners at Battelle and Blackrock to make the technology portable, wearable, and even better able to control fine precision grips for small or delicate objects."