Bypassing spinal cord lets paralyzed man control own hand

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While Burkhart's early progress is hugely promising, the researchers hope that it is just a sign of things to come.

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Using a specialized sleeve, his own mind and a brain-implant smaller than a pea, a man paralyzed from the neck down has regained the ability to handle a variety of everyday objects. The researchers say the success of the technology, which bypasses the injured spinal cord, offers "realistic hope" to others with similar disabilities, with the team planning to expand the trial to include new patients in the coming months.

After becoming paralyzed in a diving accident six years ago, 24-year-old Ian Burkhart volunteered to take part in a trial at Ohio State University to explore the effectiveness of what is described as a neural bypass system. Dubbed NeuroLife, the technology involves a tiny micro-chip sensor implanted into the motor cortex area of the brain, the region responsible for the movement of arms and hands.

This sensor tracks neural impulses from the brain and is hooked up to a computer, which uses algorithms to decode and translate them into electrical signals. These signals are then relayed to a purpose-built sleeve that contains electrodes to stimulate muscles in the arm.

Burkhart and the NeuroLife system made headlines in 2014, when he became the first quadriplegic to move his fingers and hand using his own thoughts. But the hard work didn't stop there, and the progress Burkhart has made in the meantime is quite remarkable.

While the initial breakthrough gave Burkhart the ability to pick up and hold a spoon, after hundreds of therapy sessions he can now use the NeuroLife system to perform a number of tasks, including picking up a phone, stirring a drink, swiping a credit card and playing a guitar video game similar to Guitar Hero.

"Several years after a spinal cord injury, his level of functioning has improved significantly so he's able to have more use of his fingers and hands to do functional tasks, which has not been demonstrated before," says Dr Ali Rezai, who implanted the chip in Burkhart's brain in 2014.

The more Burkhart uses the system the more it learns from his brainwaves and the more he learns to control his movements. And while this early progress is hugely promising, the researchers hope that it is just a sign of things to come. They have identified four other candidates for the NeuroLife system, the first of which is scheduled to take part in the study this US summer. Eventually, they hope to improve the technology to make it less cumbersome and to assist people who have suffered strokes and other brain or spinal cord injuries.

"We're hoping that this technology will evolve into a wireless system connecting brain signals and thoughts to the outside world to improve the function and quality of life for those with disabilities," says Rezai.

You can see Burkhart using the system in the video below. The research was published in the journal Nature.

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