Thank artificial intelligence for what doctors are declaring a modern medical “miracle.”
A Long Island man who was paralyzed in a diving accident has regained motion and feeling in his body after a breakthrough, machine learning-based surgery that successfully “connected a computer to his brain” through microelectrode implants.
Now, the successful case of Massapequa’s Keith Thomas, 45, is being heralded throughout the medical world as a “pioneer” case for AI-infused surgeries to treat or cure impassible illnesses like blindness, deafness, ALS, seizures, cerebral palsy and Parkinson’s, experts at Manhasset’s Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research boast.
“This is the first time a paralyzed person is regaining movement and sensation by having their brain, body and spinal cord electronically linked together,” Chad Bouton, a professor at Feinstein’s Institute of Bioelectronic Medicine, told The Post.
“We could continue to help millions of folks around the world and maybe with an even broader range of conditions.”
Three summers ago in 2020, Thomas, a successful wealth manager living in Manhattan for two decades, had broken his neck and portions of his spine while diving into a friend’s pool in Montauk. He blacked out under the water and awoke to learn the grim news that he was no longer in control of his body.
Thomas, who had to move back into his South Shore hometown, had initially been told that he wouldn’t be able to ever move again below the neck — but he wouldn’t buy it.
“I’m a true New Yorker and wanted everything [fixed] right away,” Thomas — known for his sense of humor — told The Post, recalling that even getting out of bed was a scary challenge at first.
Through trials, tribulations and major lifestyle adjustments, Thomas seldom lost his spirit or sense of unity with those who cared for him. He knew things would get better and the people in his life made sure of it.
His loved ones put together a GoFundMe, which raised more than $360,000 to accommodate his needs after the accident — individual donations came in as large as $10,000.
“He was loved by many and I didn’t even know this until people contacted me,” Michelle Bennett, Thomas’ sister who now lives with him, told The Post.
“Everybody thought they were his best friend, he made everyone feel special,” she added. “They all rallied for him and passed the information around. It was incredible how generous people have been for him.”
Thomas’ love of life and the people in it — plus his outstanding determination — are actually what made him an ideal candidate for the first-of-its-kind surgery, Dr. Ashesh Mehta, director of the Institute’s Laboratory of Human Brain Mapping, told The Post.
“There was something special about Keith,” he said. “We knew that he had the strength, the right attitude, the perseverance to do what’s required.”
What was required was a high-pressure 15-hour surgery, some of which Thomas had to be awake for to communicate with Mehta and fellow operators.
“The surgery had to go perfectly. There was no room for error,” Mehta added. “There’s only one way to get it right and a million ways to screw it up.”
Despite this, Thomas was left unfazed. Bennett said he was even cracking jokes while doctors went to work.
Upon the procedure’s unprecedented success and one week’s recovery — Thomas was particularly fond of the lamb chops at North Shore University Hospital — he was able to hold his sister’s hand for the first time since his accident.
“It means so much to me to have him be able to have a glimpse of independence,” Bennett said. “We take for granted what we could do, from brushing our teeth to taking a sip of water whenever we want. Just wiping away some mosquitoes on the south shore of the island.”
Nobody is more aware of this than the “pioneer” patient himself.
“It’s quite a long road to get to this point,” Thomas said, adding that he can now move his right arm to his face and the next goal is to brush his own teeth.
“I was crying like crazy.”
An evolutionary science
Undoing the damning effects of paralysis is not a feat that comes lightly — nor was it feasible years ago.
Awe-inspiring new reaches of AI made Thomas’ “literal, first of its kind,” double bypass brain implant possible. He is now a model patient for what can only be described as revolutionary medical science.
“You have a computer connected to your brain and you get feedback based on your own thoughts,” said Bouton. “That causes what we call plasticity in the brain. Plasticity is the key [resolve] to many, many conditions and movement disorders like MS — being able to train and reshape the brain and the spinal cord in this case.”
Mehta certainly had his work cut out to do so. Planting minuscule-size electrodes into a live human brain is one of medicine’s more challenging procedures.
“Imagine an 8 by 10 sheet of paper and you’ve got to place a dot right in the middle of it,” he said. “It can’t be one millimeter one way or the other way.”
With everything in the proper neuro-location, Thomas is now getting situated with the minute computers in his head. He spends two to three days a week in specialized training sessions to adjust, according to his doctor.
“It’s a two-way street, because not only is he training the machines but the machines are training him,” said Mehta. “When he plugs into the computers, they become part of him. We’re learning about this technology through Keith and that broadens the scope.”
One day because of this individual, neurological “rewiring,” Thomas might even walk again, blind people could see and the deaf could hear, his medical team agrees.
“You can do more movements and you can start to feel more. So yes, I think this [breakthrough is] happening now,” Bouton said. “The sky’s the limit.”
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