AI Technology is Doing Amazing Things to Help People with Neurological and Movement Disorders 

Keith Thomas, a former Manhattan wealth manager, and his sister, Michelle Bennett, who is now his caregiver, have watched their lives quickly change. In July 2020, at the age of 41, Thomas accidentally dove into a shallow pool, hit his head on the bottom, and broke his neck. Thomas became paralyzed from the chest down, losing all sense of touch.  

Ann Johnson, a 30-year-old teacher, volleyball coach, and mother of an infant, had a stroke that paralyzed her and left her unable to move her body or mouth. Ann hadn’t spoken a word for 18 years.  

Pat Bennett, a 68-year-old with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a rare condition that gets worse over time as the brain degenerates, could no longer speak either. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and advanced futuristic medical technology has now changed Keith, Anne, and Pat’s lives in incredible ways, enabling Keith to rediscover his sense of touch again and Ann and Pat to speak again. I will explain how these remarkable breakthroughs are possible, giving these three individuals a new lease on life. 

Paraplegic Man Makes Great Progress with the Help of Groundbreaking Surgery and AI 

Keith Thomas had been unable to move his arms and hands and hadn’t had a sense of touch for three years since his accident. Recently, after a cutting-edge clinical trial that involved a double neural bypass surgery, Thomas’ sense of touch is slowly getting restored. Doctors at Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in New York implanted five tiny computer chips in Thomas’ brain that can literally read his mind. For example, if Thomas thinks of grabbing a bottle, electrical signals are sent to a patch on his neck or arm, bypassing the injured sections of his spine to reconnect with his brain.  

The AI technology has enabled Thomas to now be able to lift his arms and feel sensations on his skin, including the touch of his sister’s hand. This is possible because when he touches an object or person, or someone touches him, sensors on his skin send a signal to a computer, which then communicates with the arrays in his brain. He can now feel a hand in his, or even something as delicate as a feather stroking the sensors on his fingertips. Touch doesn’t feel exactly how it did before the accident, he says, but it’s definitely incredible progress. 

Only a few months post-operation, Thomas is remarkably able to move his arms when he’s not connected to the computer and can describe where on his arm he’s being touched, even with his eyes closed. The team has also observed small natural movements in his fingers, another good sign. 

“This is the first time the brain has been linked directly to spinal cord stimulation and to the body to restore movement and the sense of touch where the user’s thoughts are actually driving that therapy,” said Professor Chad Bouton, the vice president of Advanced Engineering and director of the Neural Bypass and Brain-Computer Interface Laboratory at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research. 

Bouton and his team are now working on a separate, non-invasive system meant to stimulate movement through electrodes placed on the skin with no surgery required. Bouton says such a product could be a good fit for people with less-extensive paralysis, such as those who have suffered a stroke, or who don’t want to undergo brain surgery.   

“There was a time that I didn’t know if I was even going to live, or if I wanted to, frankly,” said Keith Thomas. “Now I can feel the touch of someone holding my hand. It’s overwhelming.” 

Artificial Intelligence Helps Stroke Victim Speak Again 

In one of the other amazing medical breakthroughs described in the examples above, researchers from UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley are using artificial intelligence to help Ann Johnson, a paralyzed mother, wife, and former teacher who was the victim of a life-altering stroke, reclaim her voice. The research, published in the journal Nature, demonstrates the first time spoken words and facial expressions have been directly synthesized from brain signals, experts say. To enable this to happen, scientists implanted electrodes decoding Johnson’s brain signals as she silently tried to say sentences.  

For weeks, Johnson helped train the AI algorithms to recognize her brain activity. The technology decoded Johnson’s brain signals, turning them into sentences and facial expressions through 250 electrodes that are implanted onto the surface of her brain that’s responsible for speech.  

Technology enables an avatar on a computer screen to speak the words and display smiles, pursed lips, and other expressions. Johnson chose the avatar, a face resembling hers, and researchers used a recorded speech she gave at her wedding to develop the avatar’s voice. She and her husband, William, a postal worker, even engaged in conversation through the avatar. He asked how she was feeling about the Toronto Blue Jays’ chances. “Anything is possible,” she replied. Watch her video here 

UCSF researchers say the AI system is faster and more accurate than other devices that allow paralysis patients to communicate, and that their next step is to create a wireless version of the device. 

New Hope for ALS Patients to Communicate 

Lastly, Pat Bennett, 68, is a former human resources director and one time equestrian who jogged daily. In 2012, she was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which progressively causes physical weakness and eventual paralysis. 

As published in the journal, Nature, the study involved four small sensors being implanted deep in Bennett’s brain to address the loss of her ability to speak intelligibly. The devices transmit signals from a couple of speech-related regions in Bennett’s brain to state-of-the-art software that decodes her brain activity and converts it to text displayed on a computer screen. The study was led by Dr. Jaimie Henderson, a professor of neurosurgery at Stanford, who was motivated by his childhood experience of watching his father lose speech after an accident. 

After the sensors were put in, an artificial-intelligence algorithm receives and decodes electronic information emanating from Bennett’s brain, eventually teaching itself to distinguish the brain activity associated with her attempts to formulate each of the 39 sounds that compose spoken English. It feeds its best guess concerning the sequence of Bennett’s attempted sounds (or phonemes) into a language model, which converts the streams of sounds into the sequence of words they represent. The system can decode up to 125,000 English words at a 24% error rate, giving Bennett the opportunity to now communicate with her caregiver, friends, and family.  

“It’s a useful vocabulary that someone with severe paralysis could use to communicate essential needs,” said Dr Jaimie Henderson, professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University.  

“Imagine,” Bennett herself wrote, “how different conducting everyday activities like shopping, attending appointments, ordering food, going into a bank, talking on a phone, expressing love or appreciation — even arguing — will be when nonverbal people can communicate their thoughts in real time.” 

Learn more in this video here 

Scientists Hope AI Can Help Many People with Neurological or Movement Disorders in the Future 

Millions of people around the world currently live with neurological or movement disorders, with varying severity levels, due to a variety of reasons. Scientists are hopeful that these new methods will provide new pathways toward improving the condition and quality of life for many of them. 

Do you have a Neurological or Movement Disorder?   

AI is making amazing strides in medicine. Hopefully the tools described and others that are on the horizon will help make life with neurodegenerative or neurological and/or movement disorders easier for those who live with them and their caregivers.  

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.