Brain Implant Restores Function to the Hands of a 24-Year-Old Quadriplegic

April 14, 2016 | Gillian Burrell

Ian Burkhart wearing the neuroprosthetic sleeve
Photo credit: NPG Press

Video shows the student playing video games, swiping credit cards, and more!

When Ian Burkhart recovered from a serious driving accident six years ago, he never thought he’d play another video game. Due to a severe spinal injury, Burkart was paralyzed from the shoulders down and lacked sensation in his hands and feet. These days, however, the 24-year-old business student can pick up objects, swipe credit cards, and even play Guitar Hero, all thanks to the tiny chip in his brain.

Two years after his injury, Burkhart was recruited to participate in a groundbreaking new clinical trial at Ohio University’s Wexner Medical Center in partnership with Battelle, a nonprofit tech company. The team, led by Ali Rezai and Jerry Mysiw, had been working on neuroprosthetics for over a decade, and with FDA-approval, were finally able to test their findings on Burkhart.

In April 2014, Burkhart underwent surgery to have a tiny chip implanted on his motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls muscle movements. The chip receives electrical impulses and relays them to a computer which then directs the neuroprosthetic sleeve on Burkhart’s arm to stimulate the corresponding muscles.

Essentially, the system bypasses Burkart’s spinal cord, which is incapable of relaying information from his brain to his hands.

SEE ALSO: New Era of Prosthetics May Restore Sense of Touch

After his surgery in 2014, Burkhart amazed the world by opening and closing his hand. It was the first successful instance of muscle activation in a person with quadriplegia.  According to a paper published in Nature on Wednesday (April 13), the technology has progressed in leaps and bounds since then.

"In the 30 years I've been in this field, this is the first time we've been able to offer realistic hope to people who have very challenging lives," said Mysiw, chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Ohio State, in a statement.

"Ian can grasp a bottle, pour the contents of the bottle into a jar and put the bottle back down. Then he takes a stir bar, grips that and then stirs the contents of the jar that he just poured and puts it back down. He's controlling it every step of the way." Annetta, electrical engineering.

These complex motions are made possible by the wearable sleeve that stimulates individual muscles in Burkhart’s forearm with great precision. The team worked with Burkart for months to figure out which brain signals correspond to which movements.

"During the last decade, we've learned how to decipher brain signals in patients who are completely paralyzed and now, for the first time, those thoughts are being turned into movement," said study co-author Bouton in a statement.

So far, Burkhart is the only person to have tested the technology. The researchers have identified four other volunteers who would be suitable for their clinical trial, and one of them will start this summer.

DON'T MISS: New Breakthrough in Prosthetics: Brain Signals Can Control Individual Finger Movement

Neuroprosthetics holds great hope for patients affected by debilitating brain and spinal cord injuries.

"We're hoping that this technology will evolve into a wireless system connecting brain signals and thoughts to the outside world to improve the function and quality of life for those with disabilities," Rezai said in a media release. "One of our major goals is to make this readily available to be used by patients at home."

As for Burkhart, he is nothing but optimistic.

"Participating in this research has changed me in the sense that I have a lot more hope for the future now," Burkhart said in a release. "I always did have a certain level of hope, but now I know, first-hand, that there are going to be improvements in science and technology that will make my life better."

You can watch Burkhart using his neuroprosthetic in this video:


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