NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Imagine not being able to grip a pencil, put on socks or hold a cup.
That’s a reality for people suffering from spinal cord injuries.READ MORE: Vaccine Mandate For NYC Teachers, Department Of Education Workers Put On Hold By Federal Judge
However, as CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez reported, researchers are now using a device to actually re-route brain signals and help restore movement.
There are about 12,000 spinal cord injuries every year in the United States, mostly in young men, leaving them partially or completely paralyzed.
The problem is that a damaged spinal cord cuts off the signal between the brain and the muscles of movement. This new device bypasses that roadblock.
Brian Gomez, no relation to Dr. Gomez, is building a coffee roasting business and hopes one day soon he can actually hold and drink a cup of his own coffee.
In 2011, Brian broke his neck in a dirt bike accident, leaving him in a wheelchair with limited use of his hands.
“The hardest things to learn, just putting on your socks, learning how to eat — the things that you wouldn’t think would be hard at all,” he said.
Normally, regaining any hand movement so long after an accident is rare. But nowadays, things are getting better for Brian thanks to an innovative surgery.READ MORE: Gabby Petito's Father Announces Creation Of Gabby Petito Foundation Ahead Of Public Memorial Service
“The spinal cord is a very plastic and very smart organ that can be, that the circuitry can be, rewired,” Dr. Daniel Lu, of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, said.
That’s exactly what Lu hopes to do through an NIH-funded study. He performed the first surgery in the world that uses a 32-electrode stimulator. It detours around spinal cord injuries and finds new pathways to deliver brain signals directly to a patient’s hands.
Two months after the experimental procedure, Brian was once again able to use all 10 fingers.
Today, he continues to undergo rigorous therapy where researchers fine-tune the signals from the stimulator and chart his progress.
In the three patients who have received the device at UCLA, hand function has increased by as much as 300 percent.
“Meaning they can now use their hands for daily tasks like typing on a computer, using a phone, you know, in Brian’s case, grinding coffee beans,” Lu said.
“Things are about to change for the better, so you get more excited, at least I did, got more excited for what’s to come,” Brian said.
Other devices and approaches are also being developed, including ways to use brain waves to control robotic limbs. But this implant in the spinal cord, not the brain, helps the patient move his or her own hands.MORE NEWS: Gov. Kathy Hochul Increases Pressure On COVID Vaccine Holdouts As Deadline For Health Care Workers Approaches
Eventually, doctors hope to be able to to heal the spinal cord and regenerate brain fibers across the injury, but that’s a ways off.