It began as an average summer day: Ian Burkhart, 19 at the time, went swimming in the Outer Banks with some friends. In an instant, everything changed as a wave swept Burkhart into a sandbar, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. Despite most people’s doubts, he remained hopeful that modern medicine would be able to develop technologies to aid his independence.
His hopes have been realized: scientists reported in the academic journal Nature this Wednesday that they have successfully implanted a chip in Burkhart’s brain, designed to send signals to some 130 electrodes embedded on a sleeve worn on his arm. The chip and sleeve allow him to move his hand with significant accuracy – enough that he can even play Guitar Hero proficiently. Burkhart can now do routine tasks, like pouring a glass of water, stirring contents in a jar, and swiping a credit card.
To the average person, these tasks are just a mundane part of everyday life, but to Burkhart, now 24, this ability is life-changing. As he told reporters,
“The first time I was able to open and close my hands it really gave me a sense of hope for the future.”
Researchers Chad Bouton, Nick Annetta, and Ali Rezai led a team of multidisciplinary scientists, ranging from neurosurgeons to electrical engineers, to develop the technique. Essentially, they were able to reconnect the brain to the body and bypass the damaged spinal cord completely. Just like his spinal cord would facilitate messages from his brain to his muscles, Burkhart’s concentration on the movement allows for a computer connected to the chip to translate those signals to his muscles. Researchers discovered that each person has a unique language, so that machine acts as an interpreter.
This study is monumental, not just for Burkhart, but for all paralyzed patients. It marks the first time a patient has been able to regain movement in his own body by using signals that originated within the brain. Burkhart is able to perform a total of six different hand and wrist motions; according to Bouton, they “were not sure this would be possible. This result really exceeded our expectations.” Following the surgery that implanted the chip into the motor cortex of his brain, Burkhart participated in three sessions a week for fifteen months to fine-tune the system.
Other recent advancements have been made in brain-computer interfaces for paralyzed victims. Robotic appendages and similar treatments are being tested on those with Lou Gehrig’s disease and stroke victims.
Scientists are hoping that this and other breakthroughs will aid the millions of people living with partial or full paralysis around the world. As Annetta, one of the lead electrical engineers on the project, stated, their immediate goals include downsizing the equipment and making it more practical for patients to use in both their private lives and out in the communities. According to Bouton, “this really provides hope, we believe, for many patients in the future as this technology evolves and matures,” he continued. “This opens up so many opportunities now that we know it’s possible.”
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