After receiving an experimental brain implant, Ian Burkhart can use his hand for the first time in 6 years, after he broke his neck in a tragic accident. Burkhart regained some control of his right hand thanks to the brain implant, making him the first person living with paralysis to ever regain the ability to move with nothing more than his thoughts.
Naturally, one of the tools used by researchers to trail Burkhart’s hand and brain implant, was by allowing him to play a guitar video game similar to Guitar Hero.
“I know firsthand, what was taken away from me after my injury. So the first time when I was able to open and close my hand, it really gave me that sense of hope for the future,” said Ian Burkhart, during a press conference yesterday, announcing the findings of the researchers who fitted him with the brain implant and electrode sleeve.
At 18-years-old, Ian Burkhart dove into unexpectedly shallow waters while on vacation. The impact caused severe damage to his spinal cord and left Burkhart paralyzed from the chest down. Burkhart, now 24, can move his fingers independently, grasp cups and make limited use of his right hand – a major breakthrough for brain implant researchers and for other individuals living with partial or total paralysis.
The brain implant, reports The Verge, is a stunning piece of technology. The implant in Burkhart’s brain acts as a relay, bypassing the nerves damaged in his spine by directing electrical impulses along an external relay rather than through damaged nerve pathways, like the ones that were damaged in Burkhart’s diving accident. The brain implant works in conjunction with two other components: a sleeve of electrodes wrapped around Burkhart’s arm and a computer.
“It’s crazy because I had lost sensation in my hands and I had to watch my hand to know whether I was squeezing or extending the fingers,” said Burkhart, speaking to the New York Times.
Working together, Burkhart’s brain implant detects electrical signals and relays them to the computer, which then attempts to decipher the information, determining how Burkhart wants to move his hand, then the computer relays the information to the sleeve of electrodes which directly stimulate Burkhart’s muscles, causing them to contract in a way that produces the desired effect: gripping, moving fingers.
The brain implant itself acts as a relay, subverting Burkhart’s damaged nerve tissue by delivering electrical activity to the computer which in turn translates the information into movement. The brain implant system isn’t available for other patients just yet, but researchers are hopeful. Burkhart continues to make breakthroughs every day, as the computer learns which signals to interpret into movement and which ones to ignore.
Burkhart had the implant installed in his brain around 2 years ago; since then, the computer system has continued to learn and refine how to interpret the signals from Burkhart’s brain implant into actual movement via the electrode sleeve on his right arm. The system isn’t perfect however, being an early prototype it’s far from it in fact. Ian Burkhart can control his hand fingers, even enough to play the Guitar Hero-like game that researchers have set up for him, but he still can’t feel his limbs. The brain implant doesn’t deliver sensation to Burkhart’s brain, it only interprets electrical signals and turns them into movement.
According to The Verge, around 5.6 million people in the United State alone suffer from some form of paralysis, which can naturally make everyday tasks into monumental obstacles. The brain implant treatment underwent by Ian Burkhart could be the first real step in restoring movement to the one in fifty Americans who suffer from some form of paralysis.
[Photo by David Greedy/Getty Images]