Paralysed man regains movement with aid of brain implant
SIX years after being paralysed from the chest down, an American man used his right hand to stir coffee and swipe a credit card, a groundbreaking study reported on Wednesday.
The unprecedented feat was made possible by computer software replacing the damaged spinal cord as the communication highway between Ian Burkhart's brain and his hand muscles.
"This is the first time a completely paralysed person has regained movement just by using their own thoughts," said researcher Chad Bouton of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York.
Mr Burkhart, 24, has a pea-sized chip in his head to read his brain signals, which are then deciphered by a computer and rerouted to the hand, wrist and finger muscles.
The muscles receive their instructions from an electrode sleeve worn on the right forearm - with which Mr Burkhart can now also swipe a credit card, pick up a spoon, hold a phone to his ear and play the chords of a guitar video game.
The United States-based researchers hope their work will one day allow paralysed people to feed and dress themselves.
Their device, called NeuroLife, reroutes messages from the brain to the muscles, bypassing the spinal cord.
Two years ago, they reported a major breakthrough when Mr Burkhart was able to open and close his hand. With more training, he can now grip a "stir stick" with his fingertips.
Mr Burkhart broke his neck in a holiday diving accident when he was 19 and was left with his arms and legs paralysed.
"Doctors told me I'd broken my neck and that most likely I'd be able to move my shoulders around, but nothing else for the rest of my life," he said.
He volunteered for the trial because he wanted to help people like himself regain their independence.
Mr Burkhart underwent surgery to have the chip implanted in the brain's motor cortex area, which controls movement. The chip was attached on top of the skull to a "connector" linking it to a computer, which he "trained" to read his mind and decode movements he wanted to execute.
The command to open, clench or pinch is then relayed to an electrode sleeve on Mr Burkhart's right arm.
"I hadn't moved in about three-and-a-half years at that point. Now, it's something that's so fluid it's kind of like it was before I had my injury. I just think about what I want to do and I can do it."
Some of the functions he has relearnt have the potential of changing his daily life for the better. But for now, he can do them only in the lab.
The researchers said they hope to improve the technology to help not only people with spinal cord injuries, but also those who suffered a stroke or traumatic brain injury.