In 2014, Ian Burkhart was 23-years-old when he was able to move his hand for the first time after a 2010 car accident that left him as a quadriplegic. The historic event was the result of a collaborative effort by doctors at Ohio State University and engineers from Battelle Memorial Institute.
NeuroLife Neural Bypass Technology serves to link the brain’s electrical impulses to the signals that are sent and received to the spinal cord and the muscles. Quadriplegics like Ian aren’t able to relay neurological signals on their own due to their damaged spinal cord. NeuroLife Neural Bypass Technology skips the spinal cord and relies on a microchip and a special sleeve, which stimulates the muscle based upon the signals it receives from the microchip. The sensor microchip is surgically implanted into the part of the brain that controls motor function – essentially, a mind-controlled device.
The sleeve is used to interpret the data from the brain, then stimulates the muscles accordingly. During the clinical trials, Ian was able to pick up and hold a spoon using his thoughts. Two years since Ian’s initial study, he is now able to swipe credit cards, stir liquids, and play Guitar Hero. Ian’s achievements have been recorded in the 2016 journal Nature.
Since 2014, Ian continues to work with researchers on improving the NeuroLife Neural Bypass Technology. He spends up to four hours a day in the lab, with half of that time devoted to thinking on cue to specific hand movements.
“I would leave sessions mentally drained,” Ian says. “But now it's gotten to the point where [moving my arm] is something I have to focus on, but I can focus on that and still do other things at the same time.”
One of the challenges faced by the researchers was trying to decipher variations caused by brain cell shifts. These shifts can be disrupted simply by the amount of sleep one received, or by other factors, like taking medication or drinking caffeinated beverages.
Ian has much hope in the future of the technology, “I'd just like to get it outside the lab and put it through its paces,” Ian says. The NeuroLife Neural Bypass Technology, which currently spans across a table with seven boxes, will need to be modified to become more portable. The developers hope to design an improved version that will be the size of a hardback book.
Image credit: Photo by Josh Riemer on Unsplash