Ian Burkhart lost all sensation in his hands and legs after a freak swimming accident five years ago. Today, doctors report that a chip in his brain has let him regain some control of his hand. The 24-year-old man has “regained control over his right hand and fingers, using technology that transmits his thoughts directly to his hand muscles and bypasses his spinal injury.”
The doctors’ study was published today in the journal Nature, and is the first account in history of “limb reanimation” in a human with profound paralysis.
Read the study here at nature.com: "First paralysed person to be 'reanimated' offers neuroscience insights."
It's an amazing medical advancement, and it's also reported here in the New York Times:
Mr. Burkhart had a chip implanted in his brain two years ago. Seated in a lab with the implant connected through a computer to a sleeve on his arm, he was able to learn by repetition and continual practice to pour from a bottle, and to pick up a stirring straw and stir. He could even play a guitar video game.
“It’s crazy because I had lost sensation in my hands, and I had to watch my hand to know whether I was squeezing or extending the fingers,” Mr. Burkhart, a business student who lives in Dublin, Ohio, said in a telephone interview. His injury had left him paralyzed from the chest down; he still has some movement in his shoulders and biceps.
The new technology is not a cure for paralysis. Mr. Burkhart could only use his hand when connected to computers in the lab, and the researchers said there was much work to do before the system could provide significant mobile independence.
But the field of neural engineering is advancing quickly. Using brain implants, scientists can decode brain signals and match them to specific movements. Previously, people have learned to guide a cursor on a screen with their thoughts, primates have learned to skillfully use a robotic arm using only neural signals and scientists have shown in primates that thoughts can move arm muscles. This new study demonstrates that the bypass approach can restore critical skills to limbs no longer directly connected to the brain.
Ian talks about his what it's like to be 'reanimated' in an interview published in the journal Nature:
How did you come to be paralysed?
I was on vacation with some friends. We were playing in the ocean and I dived into a wave that pushed me down into a sandbar and I broke my neck. The next day, I was told I’d be paralysed for the rest of my life. When you’re 19 years old, you think you’re invincible. But that quickly, all of your independence is taken away.
How did it feel the first time that you were plugged into the system?
The first day that we hooked it up I was able to get movement. It was something really small — being able to open and close my hand — but it was something that I hadn’t been able to do for about three years. So it reinstated a lot of hope that people with my kind of injury won’t just have to settle. Since then, we’ve been able to do a bunch of things that someone with my kind of injury should not be able to do.
Is it uncomfortable having an access port in your skull?
At first I would get headaches, and if I happened to bump the pedestal, that would really hurt. Now, I don’t really notice it’s there. It’s protected with a little cap, and it just feels like an extension of me.
What are your hopes for the future?
I’d really like to be able to take the system home with me. Not being able to walk doesn’t really matter to me because you can do a lot from a wheelchair, but if I was able to use my hands I would be a lot more independent than I currently am. But even if it’s something that I can never take home in my lifetime, I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to take part in this study. I’ve had lots of fun with it. I know that I’ve done a lot of work to help other people as well.