A freak diving accident at age 19 left Ian Burkhart’s arms and legs paralyzed. Now 24, the former athlete has regained some use of his fingers, hand and wrist thanks to an experimental technology never before tried in humans, researchers report.
A surgically implanted computer chip enables messages to travel from Burkhart’s brain to his limbs, bypassing the damaged spinal cord, the researchers said.
“The electronic neural bypass technology in this study demonstrates what is possible in the future, and can offer hope for movement restoration to millions of people worldwide living with paralysis,” said researcher Gaurav Sharma, of the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio.
Burkhart, a high school lacrosse goalie from Dublin, Ohio, was injured in the ocean while on vacation at the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Now one of millions suffering from paralysis worldwide, he may pave the way for revolutionary advances in their treatment, the researchers said.
Here’s how the system works: Doctors in 2014 implanted a computer chip in an area of Burkhart’s brain called the motor cortex, which is responsible for controlling hand movements, Sharma said.
“By recording signals from the motor cortex, interpreting and transmitting signals by computer directly to the paralyzed hand muscles, we bypass the damaged spinal cord,” he said.
Mastering the technology was no easy feat. Burkhart attended up to three sessions a week for 15 months after the chip was implanted.
The system enabled him to make isolated finger movements and six different wrist and hand motions, allowing him to grasp, manipulate and release objects, Sharma said.
The young man was able to use the system to complete everyday tasks most people take for granted — such as grasping a bottle, pouring its contents into a jar and using a stick to stir the contents of the jar, Sharma explained.
The technology is still in its early stage, but the researchers hope it might one day help quadriplegics use their limbs.
“It is conceivable that this technology could be used to link brain activity to stimulate leg muscles to help people with lower limb paralysis,” Sharma said.
However, the current system is only usable in a controlled laboratory environment.
“Our next goal is to build upon our experience from this study to develop a system that is not only portable, but also something that a patient can take home to assist with their activities of daily living or rehabilitation,” he said.
Many technological advances and regulatory approvals will be required to make this system usable in a home setting, including robust computer software and hardware, and smaller devices, Sharma said.
The current trial permits up to four additional patients, he said. “We are currently recruiting a second participant for our clinical study and hope to begin that work this summer,” he said.
Dr. Gayatri Devi, a neurologist and memory loss specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, called this technology a breakthrough for paralyzed patients.
“This is a phenomenal demonstration of the power of technology in helping patients with spinal cord injury to live more independently,” she said. “It is both an emotional and a neurologic breakthrough for a quadriplegic patient to be able to place a straw in a cup of water and to drink from it.”
Although this technology involves invasive brain surgery, it provides hope in an area of rehabilitation where there was little hope previously, Devi said.
“While each patient will need to be individually evaluated for such intervention, the future is now brighter for the rehabilitation of patients with cord injuries,” she said.
The report was published April 13 in the journal Nature.
For more on spinal cord injury, visit the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.