VIDEO: Technology Helps A Paralyzed Man Transform Thought Into Movement

Posted 4/10/2016

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Ian Burkhart, now 24, was paralyzed in 2010 after diving into a wave in shallow water. The accident left him with some arm movement but no use of his hands.

Then, about two years ago, scientists in Ohio equipped Burkhart with a system that allowed him to control his right wrist and hand with his thoughts.

“The first time moving my hand — that was really just like that flicker of hope,” Burkhart told reporters during a media briefing Tuesday. The briefing was held to publicize a study in this week’s issue of Nature, which describes Burkhart’s progress since he started using the system.

After many months of practice, Burkhart can now perform tasks like pouring water from a bottle, grasping small objects, and swiping a credit card through a card reader. He can also control the movement of individual fingers.

It’s all possible because of technology that intercepts and decodes electrical signals from the brain before they reach Burkhart’s damaged spine.

“We’re actually routing them around the spinal cord injury and then reinserting those signals into the muscles,” says Chad Bouton, the study’s first author and vice president of advanced engineering at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y.

The system relies on electrodes implanted in Burkhart’s brain, a computer interface attached to his skull, and electrical stimulators wrapped around his forearm. It was developed by a team at Ohio State University and Battelle Memorial Institute, in Columbus, Ohio, where Bouton used to work.

At first, Burkhart could grasp objects, but he would drop them when he moved his arm. His skill has improved steadily, though, Bouton says.

“Ian is learning how to think about very detailed movements and the machine is actually learning how to decipher those signals more effectively as well,” Bouton says. “So they’re actually learning together.”