After diving into a shallow wave at a beach and hitting the sandy bottom, Ian Burkhart severely injured his spinal cord and became paralyzed when he was only 19 years old. He lost the ability to use his legs and forearms due to where the injury occurred on his body.
According to a recent study, Burkhart, now 24 years old, has recovered his ability to move his wrist, hand and some of his fingers by using an electrical device that was implanted into his brain. The electrical device is connected to a sleeve of electrodes that he wears on his forearm.
Burkhart has recovered the functional movements by using the electrical device, said Chad Bouton. Bouton is the lead author of the study published April 13 in the journal Nature and the division leader, at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York, of neurotechnology and analytics.
According to Bouton, in order for Burkhart to recover his individual finger movements, the researchers had to discover and decipher certain brain signals. Soon after, they had to evaluate the electrical impulse pattern required to release on his forearm.
The researchers and doctors embedded a device with microelectrodes into the part of the brain that controls movement, his motor cortex. When Burkhart wears the sleeve, he has the ability to move and control his arm using brain-computer-interface technology, to translate these signals into electrical pulses in an individual’s’ brain, by using a computer. The sleeve’s 130 electrodes emits electrical impulses to his muscles, which makes them contract.
In an individual who is not paralyzed, signals from the brain move down the spinal cord to nerves connected to muscles in the body, making those muscles move. In paralyzed individuals, because of spinal cord injury, these signals still happen in the brain, yet can’t be transmitted to muscles. To deliver the signals directly to Burkhart’s muscles, the microchip in his brain and the electrode sleeve bypass the injury.
Burkhart can now complete daily tasks with his hand, including the ability to swipe a credit card, pour water into a cup and play Guitar Hero, with the electrical device’s help.
Fundamentally, Burkhart has the ability to make these movements by “mastering his thoughts,” said Dr. Ali Rezai. Rezai is a neurosurgeon at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center where Burkhart was treated, and senior author of the study.
According to researchers, Burkhart’s capacity to move several of his fingers is a noteworthy discovery. They hope that one day this electrical device technology could help other individuals with paralysis, as well as individuals who, due to strokes or traumatic brain injuries, have lost movement.