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Brain implant enables paralysed man to control his hand and arm

After being paralysed in a diving accident six years ago, Ian Burkhart was unable to move any part of his body. Now, this 24 year old quadriplegic is able to play video games and swipe credit cards with his own fingers, all thanks to a prototype medical system which he powers with his own thoughts. This device, called NeuroLife, was invented and developed as part of a collaborative research programme by neuroscientists and physicians from the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

During a 3 hour surgery in April 2014, Burkhart had a tiny computer chip implanted into the motor cortex of his brain. The pea-sized chip functions as an electronic neural bypass to reconnect the brain directly to the muscles, thus enabling voluntary or functional control of a paralysed limb by the power of thought. NeuroLife is able to interpret thoughts and brain signals and bypass the damaged spinal cord, connecting directly to an electrode sleeve that then stimulates the muscles that control the arm and hand.

Successful Physical Movement After 10 Years Research

The success of this technology was first demonstrated almost two years ago, in June 2014, when Burkhart demonstrated how by simply thinking about opening and closing his hand, he was able to complete the physical movement. Fast forward two years and he’s able to execute far more sophisticated movements such as picking up and holding a bottle, a phone or a fork. He’s even able to pour contents from one receptacle to another.

NeuroLife has been developed as a result of 10 years of research, and is a combination of algorithms that learn and decode the activity in Burkhart’s brain, together with a high-definition muscle stimulation sleeve that has the ability to translate the brain’s neural impulses and send them down to the paralysed limb. In order to achieve these finer movements, Burkhart has been using the sleeve to stimulate and build his atrophied forearm muscles so that they will be more responsive to the stimulation.

NeuroLife has shown that it’s possible to re-route signals recorded within the brain around the site of the spinal cord injury, thus restoring functional movement, and movement of individual fingers. Ian Burkhart’s story gives hope that other patients with brain and spinal cord injuries may be helped to achieve more function and independence.

The results of the study were published in a recent edition of the online journal Nature.

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