Device Harnesses Thoughts, Allows Quadriplegic to Use His Hands

Brain implant bypasses injured spinal cord

Six years ago, Ian Burkhart was paralyzed in a diving accident. Today, he participates in clinical sessions during which he can grasp and swipe a credit card or play a video game with his fingers and hand. These complex functional movements are driven by his thoughts and a prototype medical system. The device, called NeuroLife, was invented at the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, which teamed with physicians and neuroscientists from the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University.

The Ohio State doctors implanted a tiny computer chip into Burkhart’s brain. Acting as an electronic neural bypass, the chip connects Burkhart’s brain directly to his muscles, allowing voluntary and functional control of his paralyzed limb by interpreting his thoughts and brain signals. The chip bypasses the injured spinal cord and connects to a sleeve on Burkhart’s arm, which stimulates the muscles that control his arm and hand.

“We’re showing for the first time that a quadriplegic patient is able to improve his level of motor function and hand movements,” said co-author Dr. Ali Rezai.

Burkhart first demonstrated the feasibility of the neural bypass technology in June 2014, when he was able to open and close his hand simply by thinking about it. Now he can perform more-sophisticated movements with his hands and fingers, such as picking up a spoon or picking up and holding a phone to his ear—things he couldn’t do before.

The neural bypass technology combines algorithms that learn and decode the user’s brain activity and a high-definition muscle-stimulation sleeve that translates neural impulses from the brain and transmits new signals to the paralyzed limb. The Battelle team has been working on the technology for more than a decade. To develop the algorithms, software, and stimulation sleeve, the scientists first recorded neural impulses from an electrode array implanted in a paralyzed person’s brain. They used those recorded data to illustrate the device’s effects on the patient and to prove the concept.

Four years ago, the researchers began designing clinical trials that would validate the feasibility of using the neural bypass technology in patients.

During a three-hour surgery in April 2014, Rezai implanted a computer chip smaller than a pea onto the motor cortex of Burkhart’s brain.

According to Rezai and his team, the new technology promises to help patients affected by various brain and spinal-cord injuries, such as strokes and traumatic brain injury, to be more independent and functional.

“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. “One of our major goals is to make this readily available to be used by patients at home.”

Sources: Battelle Memorial Institute; April 13, 2016; and Nature; April 13, 2016.

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