An Ohio man paralyzed in an accident while diving in waves can now pick up a bottle or play the video game Guitar Hero thanks to a small computer chip in his brain that lets his mind guide his hands and fingers, bypassing his damaged spinal cord.
Scientists on Wednesday described accomplishments achieved by 24-year-old quadriplegic Ian Burkhart using an implanted chip that relays signals from his brain through 130 electrodes on his forearm to produce muscle movement in his hands and fingers.
Burkhart first demonstrated the “neural bypass” technology in 2014 when he was able simply to open and close his hand. But the scientists, in research published in the journal Nature, said he can now perform multiple useful tasks with more sophisticated hand and finger movements.
The technology, which for now can only be used in the laboratory, is being perfected with an eye toward a wireless system without the need for a cable running from the head to relay brain signals.
“This study marks the first time that a person living with paralysis has regained movement by using signals recorded from within the brain,” said bioelectronic medicine researcher Chad Bouton of the New York-based Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, who worked on the study at the Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio.
Burkhart said the technology lets him function like “a normal member of society.”
The technology potentially could help people not only after spinal cord injuries but after strokes or traumatic brain injuries, Bouton added.
Burkhart, a former lacrosse goalie, suffered a broken neck and spinal cord damage at age 19 diving into a wave at North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 2010, causing paralysis of his arms and legs. Such injuries disrupt nervous system signal pathways between the brain and muscles.
Surgeons implanted the pea-sized chip into his motor cortex, which controls voluntary muscular activity. The chip, connected to a cable running from his head to a sleeve containing the electrodes wrapped around his forearm, sends brain signals that stimulate muscles controlling the hands and fingers.
Burkhart, with six wrist and hand motions, could rotate his hand, make a fist, pinch his fingers together, grasp objects like a bottle, spoon and telephone, swipe a credit card and play the video game simulating guitar strumming.
Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center neurosurgeon Ali Rezai called the results a “milestone in the evolution of brain-computer interface technology.”
“Things are kind of moving along better than I imagined,” Burkhart said.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by James Dalgleish)