1st Place Winner BCI Award 2018: Restoring Functional Reach-to-Grasp in a Person with Chronic Tetraplegia using Implanted FES and Intracortical BCIs

A. Bolu Ajiboye and Robert F. Kirsch of Case Western Reserve University, USA, in collaboration with Leigh R. Hochberg of Harvard Medical School and Brown University, USA, won 1st place at the BCI Award 2018 with their work “Restoring Functional Reach-to-Grasp in a Person with Chronic Tetraplegia using Implanted Functional Electrical Stimulation and Intracortical Brain-Computer Interfaces“. We had the chance to talk with the winner, Bolu, about his study. It was the first study to combine an implanted human BCI system with implanted FES to restore both reaching and grasping in a person who had lost all functionality.

Sarah Breinbauer: Can you tell me a little bit more about yourself and your background?

Bolu: “Yes. My name is Bolu Ajiboye. I am an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. I have a PhD from Northwestern University in biomedical engineering and I have been a faculty member of Case Western for about 6 years. I also work for the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center, and most of my work is related to brain computer interfaces (BCI) applied to persons with spinal cord injury to restore movement after chronic paralysis.”

Sarah: You submitted your recent work for the BCI Award 2018. Can you tell me a bit more about the submission and what it is all about?

Bolu: “Yes. For the past thirty years, Dr. Kirsch and other colleagues have been developing a technology called functional electrical stimulation (FES). Essentially, this technology uses electrical stimulation to reanimate paralyzed muscles, so persons with paralysis can regain motor function, and can move again. What we have done recently as part of the BrainGate2 pilot clinical trial, which is headed by Dr. Leigh Hochberg at Massachusetts General Hospital, is we have been able to combine a Brain Computer Interface with this functional electrical stimulation technology. Now, what the Brain Computer Interface does, is it records brain activity that is related to reaching and grasping. We then take this brain activity and we decode it or decipher it, to try to predict what movement the person with the paralysis wants to make. And once we are able to use our BCI to extract the intended movement command, we can send that movement command to the FES system. So, we are essentially going around or circumventing the spinal injury. Typically, with movements, the brain sends a movement command, which goes through the spinal cord. But with the spinal cord injury, that movement command can‘t get to the peripheral muscles and nerves. So with the BCI and FES we have now gone around the spinal cord, such that a person with paralysis can now think about moving, and then the arm and hand will move in the same way that they are thinking.”


Sarah: And you successfully implemented this with one patient?

Bolu: “Yes, in the submission we showed basically a proof of concept that we could restore brain controlled motor function or brain controlled movement to a single person with chronic tetraplegia who had paralysis of the arms and hands. This is the first person in the world who has been able to use the BCI and the implanted FES to restore reaching and grasping. As a result of our work, this person, who was paralyzed 10 years before joining our study, was now able to perform activities that we take for granted such as drinking a cup of coffee or feeding himself from a bowl of mashed potatoes, or even reaching and scratching his own face.”

Sarah: Yesterday, the BCI Award 2018 Ceremony took place and you won the first place. How do you feel?

Bolu: “We did submit our project to the BCI Award 2018 and we were fortunate to win first place. We were very grateful and very thankful that the committee saw our work fit to win the first place. The party was great – you know, there was music and food. We produced the video that was played there and everybody got to see the work that we did. Everybody got to see our patient using the system. It was a great time, and we are very thankful to g.tec, who sponsored the BCI Award.”

Picture: Brendan Allison, Christoph Guger, Kai Miller, A. Bolu Ajiboye, Leigh Hochberg, Shalene Flescher, Vivek Prabhakaran at the BCI Award Ceremony in Asilomar, 2018.

Sarah: Do you think the BCI Award is important in the field of BCI, or does it somehow acknowledge your work more internationally or make it more visible?

Bolu: “I think the BCI Award is important in our field. Every year, it highlights every year some of the top research, the top work that is going on in our field, and it is important to highlight that for the general public and also for researchers within our field. We are obviously very ecstatic to have won it, and it is a very important thing for our group. We believe that really it is our participants who have made this possible, the people who are benefiting from our work, and so we really accepted this award on behalf of them.”

Sarah: Thanks for your time!

Check out the video submission:
1st Place Winner of the BCI Award 2018: Restoring Functional Reach-to-Grasp using FES and ECoG
Read the publication of this submission:
Restoration of reaching and grasping movements through brain-controlled muscle stimulation in a person with tetraplegia: a proof-of-concept demonstration