Sep 12, 2023

Inspirational Quadraplegic Massapequa Man In 'Amazing' Clinical Trial

MASSAPEQUA, NY — A paralyzed man from Massapequa became the first person in the world to undergo a clinical trial that is starting to bring back sensations and even movement.

Keith Thomas has been a quadriplegic since a diving accident in 2020.

"I dove into the wrong end," Thomas told Patch.

Diving into shallow water in Montauk left Thomas with a devastating spinal cord injury and confinement to a wheelchair.

It took four months in the hospital and another four months in a rehabilitation facility for Thomas to start processing his new life and his return to Massapequa.

However, the story is hardly over at that point with promising results.

For Thomas' first six months back home, the transition was obviously difficult, if not depressing. An aide worked with him in the morning, but his day primarily revolved around watching TV in bed.

"I didn't really do much," he said.

Thomas, 45, became clinical participant #1 in a groundbreaking trial at The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health.

His doctor was connected to the lead researcher Chad Bouton, who would meet with Thomas and his family to explain what they were doing.

It's called "double neural bypass," where five electrodes were implanted in the brain during a 15-hour surgery in March in an effort to trigger motion.

"It was very promising," Thomas said. "It was all brand new to me."

Santosh Chandrasekaran, research scientist and co-investigator on the study, said it's taken nearly a decade to reach this amazing moment. The researchers used individual parts of the technology before bringing their efforts together.

As technology advanced, including artificial intelligence, which has a major role in this, so has the research.

"The group at Feinstein has been working on bringing together spinal cord stimulation along with that previous technology to bring about lasting changes," Chandrasekaran told Patch.

Thomas met the study criteria, including at least a year since the paralysis and limited mobility in the upper part of the body. Thomas said he could shrug his shoulders, but not move his arms.

"I wasn't really scared of it," Thomas said.

While Thomas, who had worked in wealth management in the city, was certainly doing the trial to give researchers data for future patients, he received his own good news.

"Mobility in my right arm has increased by 110% compared to my baseline that I started with," he said.

Chandrasekaran explained how the science behind what's happening works:

"We are putting chips in the brain to access that information. We can channel that information out, so when Keith is thinking about opening his hand or closing his hand, we can get those neural activities," Chandrasekaran said. "We can train an AI algorithm or program to figure out what he's thinking about."

The next step, Chandrasekaran said, involves spinal cord stimulation or arm stimulation to "recreate the movement that he's trying to make."

As you might imagine, any movement with the double neural bypass is gradual. As you'd also probably expect, that's just fine with Thomas.

"It was exciting," he said. "You take the small things for granted all the time. Just to be able to scratch my chin was amazing."

The scientist's optimism comes with a more cautious outlook.

"You're always pleasantly surprised, because you always know this technology is going to work from various studies you've done before," Chandrasekaran said. "But to actually see a doubling in arm strength in a person you're working with day to day, is really rewarding."

Watching participant number 1 make such strides with "new sensations in some areas of the hand" shows how the study could be important for many people down the road.

"The holy grail is to restore movement of the fingers, which is still a work in progress," Chandrasekaran said. "But the whole idea is when the system is turned off, what kind of movement is he able to keep or sensation that he can feel?"

He said the brain relearning those movements will take time due to the "rewiring of existing connections." But Chandrasekaran is hopeful that within six months Thomas will see those changes and can only help the next wave of patients.

"We're just in the beginning stages," Thomas realized. "I have hope that it's going to be amazing. I'll be able to use my fingers one day."

Thomas' positive outlook is preparing him for whatever's ahead.

"I think learning how to be patient has made me more humble," Thomas admitted.

When told he should embrace being an inspiration for others: "I'm learning to."

"It can not be overstated ever the contributions that people like Keith bring to this field," Chandrasekaran said. "Obviously, we can not work without them. The progress would be very, very slow without the valuable time that these people contribute to the field."

Chandrasekaran said the double neural bypass isn't just effective for quadriplegics.

"This technology can be used for people with stroke [and] with other traumatic brain injuries," he said.

When Thomas was heading into surgery, he thought it was going to be bigger than him.

"[I'm] going to give a lot of hope to a lot of people out there. One day this will be resolved like there wouldn't be a quadriplegic person ever," Thomas said. "I'm very hopeful that people are going to hear about this story and want to get involved."

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