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Quadriplegic Patient Feels Touch for First Time in Years After “Neural Bypass”

A woman and a woman hold hands. A device is embedded in the man's head.
Keith Thomas is able to feel his sister hold his hand for the first time since a diving accident in 2020 left him paralyzed from the chest down. It’s a moment made possible by novel ‘double neural bypass’ technology developed at Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research that uses brain implants and artificial intelligence to bypass Thomas’ injury and reconnect his brain with healthy parts of his spinal cord, restoring lasting movement and feeling in his arm and hand. Credit: Northwell Health
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In a landmark clinical trial, researchers at Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research have restored a quadriplegic man’s ability to move and feel by implementing a revolutionary double neural bypass technology.

Keith Thomas, 45, was paralyzed from the chest down after a diving accident in 2020. Three years later, he became the first person to benefit from this groundbreaking technology. Thomas underwent 15 hours of open-brain surgery to fit the bioelectronics systems that have produced “overwhelming” changes to his life.

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“This is the first time the brain, body and spinal cord have been linked together electronically in a paralyzed human to restore lasting movement and sensation,” said Chad Bouton, professor at the Institute of Bioelectronic Medicine at the Feinstein Institutes, vice president of advanced engineering at Northwell Health, developer of the technology and principal investigator of the clinical trial.

Unprecedented technology

The technology involves the implantation of microchips into the brain, coupled with artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and innovative stimulation technology. Together, these form an electronic bridge linking Thomas's brain, body, and spinal cord.

Credit: Northwell Health

“When the study participant thinks about moving his arm or hand, we ‘supercharge’ his spinal cord and stimulate his brain and muscles to help rebuild connections, provide sensory feedback and promote recovery,” Bouton explained.

Surgical marvel and post-operation progress

Researchers and clinicians spent months mapping Thomas's brain, identifying areas responsible for arm movement and hand sensation using functional magnetic imaging scans. Surgeons were then guided by these maps during the marathon surgery where Thomas was awake, allowing the surgeons to receive real-time feedback from their patient. Thomas told them what sensations he was feeling in his hands as they probed his brain.

They inserted five chips into the brain areas responsible for movement and touch, followed by rigorous rehabilitation therapy in the lab.

A new leap in neurorehabilitation

This is how the setup works in practice: Thomas connects to a computer through two ports in his head. When Thomas thinks about performing an action, for example, closing or opening his hand, the bypass technology sends the electrical signals his brain produces in response through to a computer. The computer utilizes AI-based algorithms to output new signals to electrodes that are placed over Thomas’s spine and forearm muscles. This has the dual purpose of stimulating his hand to perform movements and further his recovery.

The second arm of the bridge sees minuscule sensors embedded in Thomas’s palm and fingertips fire pressure and touch information back through the system to the sensory regions of his brain, restoring sensation.

Using this system, Thomas has seen substantial improvements in his motor ability. He can move his arms freely and feels the supporting touch of his sister as she holds his hand. This, he says, is the first sensation he’s felt in his hands for three years.

Even more thrilling is the recovery that the system’s feedback loops appear to be locking into Thomas’s motor circuits. His arm strength has doubled since beginning the trial and he has reported additional sensation in his forearm and wrist, even during periods where the stimulation system is switched off. The team hopes that the new double neural bypass might forge new pathways at the injury site, further improving Thomas’s condition.

Earlier research by Bouton and other groups used a single neural bypass. That approach only worked when participants were connected to computers in labs and did not provide lasting natural recovery.

Implications and Hope

Dr. Kevin J. Tracey, president and CEO of the Feinstein Institutes, expressed the profound significance of this development: “Millions of people live with paralysis and loss of feeling, with limited options available to improve their condition. Bouton and his team are committed to advancing new bioelectronic technologies and opening new clinical paths to restore movement and sensation,” he said.

“There was a time that I didn’t know if I was even going to live, or if I wanted to, frankly. And now, I can feel the touch of someone holding my hand. It’s overwhelming,” said Mr. Thomas. “The only thing I want to do is to help others. That’s always been the thing I’m best at. If this can help someone even more than it’s helped me somewhere down the line, it’s all worth it.” 

This article is a rework of a press release issued by Northwell Health. Material has been edited for length and content.