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Imagine not being able to feel the warmth of a hand holding yours, or the buttons of your shirt as you try and do it up.

Millions of people live with paralysis and peripheral neuropathy — when nerves in the body’s extremities, such as hands and feet, are damaged — and aren’t able to feel sensations through their fingertips and toes. 

But that might all be about to change.

Researchers at The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research managed to evoke the sense of touch in fingers using a minimally invasive electrode brain implant. The study, a first-in-human one, offers the potential to change the lives of millions of people around the world.

The details were published in the journal Brain Stimulation.

Working from previous research

Researchers had previously managed to restore some sensation in the hand through brain-computer interface technology. This new research, however, goes a step further by stimulating harder-to-reach areas in the brain, known as sulcal areas, using electrodes that elicit precise feelings in the fingertips. 

This breakthrough may lead the way to a future clinical option, the study’s co-principal investigator, Chad Bouton, professor in the Institute of Bioelectronic Medicine at the Feinstein Institutes, believes.

The system worked as follows: A neurosurgeon carried out a minimally invasive procedure to implant stereoelectroencephalography (SEEG) electrodes into two patients’ brains. In the end, the patients reported feelings of tingling and “a sensation of electricity” in their hands and fingertips. 

Kevin J. Tracey, MD and president and CEO of the Feinstein Institutes said “This remarkable study indicates bioelectronic medicine and neurosurgery could restore functions previously lost in these conditions.” The conditions Tracey is referring to are spinal cord injuries or strokes.

A number of institutes and companies, including Elon Musk’s Neuralink, and its competitor Synchron have been working hard to find solutions to help treat certain conditions through brain implants. Going on a different tangent, other companies are focusing on creating sensory touch in robots.

As medical technology advances move forward in leaps and bounds, hopefully many people around the world will gain sensory feelings back in their hands and feet, improving their quality of life.

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