A microchip implanted in the brain of a quadriplegic man has allowed him to move his limbs, just by thinking about it.
A study published in “Nature” on April 13 details how the “neuroprosthetic brain implant system” has enabled the once immobile man to move his right arm.
Ian Burkhart, a 24-year-old from Dublin, Ohio, became a quadriplegic in July 2010 when he suffered a spinal cord injury. In an uncanny accident, Burkhart dove into a forceful wave while on a North Carolina beach. Dragged underwater by the ocean’s power, the then-college freshman broke his neck against the sea floor, leaving him instantly paralyzed.
At the age of 19, Burkhart was told by doctors he would most likely only be able to move his shoulders for the rest of his life.
Yet, just five years later, after having a microchip implanted in his brain by the doctors and researchers at Battelle and Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, Burkhart was able to intentionally move his right arm, hand, and wrist.
“With his injury, signals from the brain are intact,” said Bouton “but the signals arrive at the injury in the spinal cord and they’re completely blocked. It can’t get to his muscles, so he can’t actually do movement.” Using neural bypass technology, researchers can effectively navigate around the block that the spinal injury.
The microchip implanted in Burkhart’s motor cortex—a section of the brain that controls muscle movement—detects electrical activity arising from neurons when Burkhart thinks about moving his hand. The electrical output is then sent through a cable and to a computer.
The computer deciphers the neurons’ electrical activity into ‘messages.’ These electrical signals are transmitted to a flexible sleeve that wraps around Burkhart’s right arm. The electrical messages stimulate the muscles in his limb, enabling Burkhart to use his intention to move the body part simply by thinking about it.
With practice, Burkhart was able to open and close his hand, pick up a bottle, and pinch fine objects.
While Burkhart can only move his limb when he is connected to the neural bypass technology—the computer and the electrical sleeve—the breakthrough is revolutionary.
“Now it is just something that is so fluid. It’s kinda like it was before I had my injury,” said Burkhart of his movement, “I just think about what I want to do and now I can do it.”