Advances in bioelectronic medicine give movement back to paralyzed person

A wave at Jones Beach changed Casey Ellin's life forever. He was 26 when the wave knocked him off his feet when he was diving in the ocean. He fractured three of his vertebrae, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. 

"It was a blink of an eye. Everything changed," Ellin said. "I was on my way up, doing good and then I went backwards. I needed help with everything. It was shell shock. It just kind of hit me."

But thanks to the work at Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health in Manhasset, bioelectronic medicine may change his life for the better. Neurosurgeon-turned-scientist Dr. Kevin Tracey said significant strides have been made over the past several years.

"Bioelectronic medicine is the process of building medical devices that use electrons so patients don't have to take drugs," he said. "These devices control the activity of the nervous system and the nervous system controls the activity of your organs."

While bioelectronic medicine has been around for decades, a new sleeve is an example of one of the newest and most exciting breakthroughs in the field.

Chad Bouton, an engineer, developed the sleeve after learning that activity in the motor areas of the brain remains even years after traumatic brain injuries. The wearable sleeve, made of conductive fine threads, could potentially help patients with paralysis stimulate muscles and regain movement.

"So this is the sleeve and it has sensors and electrodes in it and the sensors pick up what a person wants to do with their hand," Bouton said. "Those signals are sent to the computer and the computer sends back signals to the little electrodes marked here to stimulate the appropriate muscles and allow a person to do what they want to do with their hand."

Casey was one of the first patients to use the sleeve as part of a study.

"I was able to pick things up with the sleeve and it was nice to do things myself," he said.

The sleeve helps patients use fine motor movement. Just by thinking of an action and starting to do it, Casey was able to pick up a granola bar and essentially feed himself—something he hasn't been able to do since the accident.

"We've been focusing on hand movements but in the future, it could be expanded to the lower extremities and maybe help someone to walk again or to recover from a stroke," Bouton said. "By having it in this wearable form, it opens up to a broader set of users and we're excited about it."

In addition, researchers are also exploring neural implant technology where an electrode is placed on the brain that would help with muscle stimulation and connectivity to the sleeve.

"That little bit of independence changes everything," Ellin said. "To be able to do something on your own makes you feel normal, like everyone else in the room."

It would be a breakthrough in science and medicine that could impact countless lives down the road.


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