It may sound like science fiction, but it happened in a lab at Ohio State University.
Back in 2014, Ian Burkhart made headlines worldwide by becoming the first complete quadriplegic to regain movement in his hand using the power of his thoughts. Now, his story is back in the news with the release of the study by his researchers in the journal Nature.
Thanks to a chip implanted into his brain, a specialized computer, and a sleeve of electrodes strapped to his arm, Burkhart can achieve voluntary movement.
When we “command” movement in our limbs, the signal originates in our brain’s motor cortex, travels down the spinal cord, and out to our peripheral nerves and muscles. A spinal cord injury blocks the commands. Researchers have long been trying to figure out how to bypass the injury to restore movement.
The experiment with Burkhart began in 2014 when doctors implanted a pea-sized chip at the exact location in his brain that controls hand movement. According to the New York Times, the chip contains 96 microelectrodes that record the firings of individual neurons.
After the chip was implanted, the work began. Computer software designed by Battele Memorial Institute had to be trained to interpret the signals from the microelectrodes. This required Burkhart to spend months tediously learning how to cue the movement with his thoughts. Over time the computer learned to translate the neural patterns, and Burkhart learned to hone movements with the help of a display monitor.
But, brain surgery and training a computer to understand neural signals was only part of the project. The team still had to successfully decode the information and send it back to the body to restore movement. The solution was the construction of a sleeve for Burkhart’s arm that uses electrical stimulation to trigger muscle movement. Battele calls the sleeve: NeuroLife Neural Bypass Technology. In an interview with Slate, project leader Chad Bouton described it as a “virtual spinal cord” that takes messages from the brain and bypasses the cord to move muscles.
The surgery is dangerous and was funded solely for research purposes. Burkhart must be in the lab and physically plugged into the computer through a port on his head for any restored movement to take place. His movements are small and only possible after nearly a year of intense training. There is also no sensory feedback, and the implanted chip will only last a few years.
Nevertheless, the science is fascinating.
Researchers have had success in the past with similar projects. In 2004, a chip embedded into a Massachusetts man let him control movement on a computer screen. In 2012, a woman could move a robotic arm that was wired to her brain. But, what has been accomplished with Burkhart is unprecedented.
Burkhart is the first to move his own arm from a computer controlled by his thoughts. It may not be a cure for spinal cord injury or paralysis, but it is a significant step in helping researchers better understand the complexities of the nervous system.
Read the full study released in April here.
Pictures from Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center