At 18 years, Ian Burkhart became paralyzed while diving at the beach. Four years later, Burkhart got a brain implant that gave him the ability to move his thumb and fingers again. Currently, thanks to the implant Burkhart can use his hands to play video games and air guitar though on a slow pace. The finding published in Nature is the first incident where a paralyzed person regains his ability to move simply by thinking.
Before Burkhart got the implant, whenever he tried to move a finger, the brain signal sent to the arm would be blocked. This concept is typically true for every paralyzed person. What scientist did by introducing the chip is to reroute those signals and bypass the paralyzing injuries altogether.
The brain implant is a chip the size of a pencil eraser. When Burkhart thinks of a motion, the chip detects the signal and sends them to the computer. The computer interplates the signals and relays the information to the unique sleeve wrapped around his right arm. The sleeve utilizes electrical impulses to trigger muscle contractions that allow hand movement. In a way, the computer acts like a translator that relays information from the brain to the arm muscles.
In the past, other patients have controlled robots with their thoughts though this is the first time a person has used a direct artificial link from the neutron in his cortex to his paralyzed limb. In 2006, German scientist managed to connect a head worn EEG monitor to a hand stimulating system, creating a simple neural bypass.
A scientist who designed this technology notes that since Burkhart has to think through every movement, it is exhausting just like taking a 7 or 8-hour exam. Burkhart notes that for the first 19 years of his life, he took for granted that his hands would do what he wished. Now he has to think about it and break it apart.
Approximately 5.6 million people in the U.S. have some form of paralysis. This is about 1 in every 50 American has trouble moving their legs and arms. Whether this technology will be used to help these individuals is an open question. The project itself is far from practical since a thick cable has to be connected to a port in Burkhart’s head linking it to the electronic sleeve. Burkhart only uses this technology while in the lab.Dr. Ali Rezai of Ohio State University, one of the scientists who worked on this technology, notes that wireless technology will eventually eliminate this barrier. Rezai notes that in future cell phones will be communicating with the sleeve and this will change paralyzed patients’ lives.
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