Yesterday, doctors revealed that they have given a paralyzed man the ability to use his right hand and fingers by bypassing the man’s spinal injury he incurred five years ago in a freak accident.
First limb reanimation in a person with quadriplegia thanks to microchip
Ian Burkhart dove into a wave in North Carolina in 2011 only to break his neck on the ocean’s floor. But doctor’s have given him limited use of his right hand with the help of a microchip they implanted in his brain two years ago. The doctors’ work was recently published in the journal Nature.
Burkhart learned how to use the hand to perform a few actions through work in a lab with a computer connected to his sleeve. Through no small amount of work and repetition, Burkhart has learned how to focus his thoughts in order to pour from a bottle, pick up a straw and stir and even play Guitar Hero.
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“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,” said Mr. Burkhart in an interview ahead of the published work.
Now, before you think you’re reading a wonderful “feel good” piece, it’s important to note that Burkhart has no ability to move his hand without the computers in the lab and doctors admit that while a breakthrough, it’s certainly not a fix of any kind but is a seminal moment in the field of neural engineering.Neural engineering is making progress through the use of brain implants that essentially “reads the mind” by decoding brain signals and assigning them movements. This progress wouldn’t be made without people like Mr. Burkhart, who is really just doing this to advance the science even over objections from his family.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Mr. Burkhart said. “But it did mean I had to have brain surgery — surgery that I didn’t need.”
“There’s the recovery time, the putting the chip in, taking it out — and in the long run it doesn’t benefit Ian one iota,” said Doug Burkhart, his father. “He was doing it for the general good, to move the science along.”
This concern didn’t extend to Ian Burkhart who said, “I knew I was going to be taken care of, and something’s going to come along to help people like me eventually — so why not try.”
Beginning with the surgery
Once again, the chip (about the size of a pea) was implanted in 2014 by doctors at Ohio State’s Center for Neuromodulation. During the implantation surgery, doctors did extensive scanning of Berhart’s exposed brain tissue of the motor cortex to isolate the part of the brain responsible for hand movement.
“We spent an hour and half working to find the exact location,” said Dr. Ali Rezai, the lead surgeon.
Following his recovery, Burkhart spent hours each week at the Battelle Memorial Institute where training began and connected a computer to the port on the back of his skull by cable.
“The signal changes constantly as learning happens, and we had to adjust to those changes,” said Herbert Bresler, a senior research leader at Battelle who is the interim chief of the project. “The machine learned as Ian Burkhart learned.”
Chad Bouton was the principal investigator and is the lead author of the study, but has left his job at Battelle.
“I had to really, really concentrate, just to do these things I did without thinking before,” said Mr. Burkhart. “But it was like a sport; you work and work and it gradually gets easier.”
Unfortunately, this progress could be short-lived or possible cut short. Presently, the funding for this project comes from Ohio State, the non-profit Battelle Memorial Institute as well as private donations. Hopefully, for many as well as Mr. Berkhart, the publication of his story and the progress made will see additional donations from new sources so these doctors and the patient can continue their work. The work is funded until the end of 2016.
“That’s going to be difficult, because I’ve enjoyed it so much,” Mr. Burkhart said. “If I could take the thing home, it would give me so much more independence. Now, I’ve got to rely on someone else for so many things, like getting dressed, brushing my teeth — all that. I just want other people to hear about this and know that there’s hope. Something will come around that makes living with this injury better.”
Thank you Mr. Berkhart and anyone who ponies up additional funding.