The sudden nature of a car crash that causes a person to become paralyzed can be considered among the more shocking outcomes of such an incident. In just a split second, a person’s life goes from normal to immoveable. This was the case for 23-year-old Ian Burkhart, who is now a quadriplegic. Burkhart is the first, however, to test a new technology, which has given him the ability to move his fingers and hand again.
The Neurobridge is “much like a heart bypass, but instead of bypassing blood, we’re actually bypassing electrical signals,” said Chad Bouton of the Battelle Memorial Institute, a science and technology development company, in a press release. “We’re taking those signals from the brain, going around the injury, and actually going directly to the muscles.” Work on the Neurobridge was done in conjunction with The Ohio State University.
Burkhart is the first of as many as five participants who will test out the new technology. In April, he underwent surgery to have an implantable chip placed in his brain’s motor cortex, where it can pick up neuronal signals — essentially, Burkhart’s thoughts. “The surgery required the precise implantation of the microchip sensor in the area of Ian’s brain that controls his arm and hand movements,” said Dr. Ali Rezai, the surgeon who implanted the chip, in the release.
Those signals are then transferred to a computer where they’re relayed to a high-definition electrode stimulation sleeve, which then reacts to the signals, stimulating the muscles and forcing them to move. And move they did, as you can see in the video below, making him the first patient ever to move a paralyzed hand with his own thoughts.
To accomplish this, the researchers spent almost 10 years working on algorithms, software, and the stimulation sleeve. Then, they recorded the neural activity occurring in a paralyzed person’s brain, and subsequently mapped everything out to show that the technology could work in concept. After Burkhart signed up for the study, they began working together to determine where the electrodes should go on the sleeve and how they would coordinate with the implanted chip. It took some time to reawaken his atrophied muscles, but eventually he was able to rotate his hand, make a fist, and pinch his fingers.
“I’ve been doing rehabilitation for a lot of years, and this is a tremendous stride forward in what we can offer these people,” said Dr. Jerry Mysiw, chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the university. “Now, we’re examining human-machine interfaces and interactions, and how that type of technology can help.”
Burkhart was the first to undergo the FDA-approved trial. If others show progress with the Neurobridge, it will be useful for almost anyone who’s had a brain or spinal cord injury, whether it’s caused by a car crash, violence, or a birth defect.