Computer chip in brain lets quadriplegic play video game, offering paralysed new hope

In a scientific breakthrough, prototype device that sends brain signals directly to patient’s muscles, bypassing injured spinal cord, gives 24-year-old functional control of his hand

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 April, 2016, 11:22am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 April, 2016, 11:24am

Six years ago, he was paralysed in a diving accident. Today, quadriplegic Ian Burkhart is able to grasp and swipe a credit card, pick up a spoon, hold a phone to his ear, and play a guitar video game with his own fingers and hand, thanks to a new device that reconnects his brain signals directly to his muscles, bypassing the injured spinal cord.

NeuroLife, the prototype device invented by a team of physicans and neuroscientists in Columbus, Ohio in the US, offers renewed hope to patients affected by various brain and spinal cord injuries, such as strokes and traumatic brain injury, for improved function and quality of life.

WATCH a computer chip give Burkhart functional control of his hand

Video: The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Centre/Battelle

The research team – a collaboration between Battelle, the world’s largest non-profit research and development organisation, and The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Centre – detailed their findings in a report published online this week in the journal Nature.

“We’re showing for the first time that a quadriplegic patient is able to improve his level of motor function and hand movements,” says Dr Ali Rezai, a co-author of the study and a neurosurgeon at Wexner Medical Centre.

Study co-author Chad Bouton, who directed Battelle’s team before he joined the New York-based Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, adds: “During the last decade, we’ve learned how to decipher brain signals in patients who are completely paralysed and now, for the first time, those thoughts are being turned into movement. Our findings show that signals recorded from within the brain can be re-routed around an injury to the spinal cord, allowing restoration of functional movement and even movement of individual fingers.”

The pioneering participant of the study, Ohio native Burkhart, 24, had a computer chip smaller than a pea implanted onto the motor cortex of his brain during a three-hour surgery in April 2014. The chip is programmed with algorithms that learn and decode his thoughts and brain signals, then bypasses his injured spinal cord and connects directly to a high-definition muscle stimulation sleeve that translates these neural impulses and transmits new signals to the paralysed limb.

The researchers, who have been working on the technology for more than a decade, figured out the correct sequence of electrodes to stimulate to allow Burkhart to move his fingers and hand functionally. For example, Burkhart uses different brain signals and muscles to rotate his hand, make a fist or pinch his fingers together to grasp an object.

Burkhart worked for months using the electrode sleeve to stimulate his forearm to rebuild his atrophied muscles so they would be more responsive to the electric stimulation.

“It’s amazing to see what he’s accomplished,” says Nick Annetta, electrical engineering lead for Battelle’s team on the project. “Ian can grasp a bottle, pour the contents of the bottle into a jar and put the bottle back down. Then he takes a stir bar, grips that and then stirs the contents of the jar that he just poured and puts it back down. He’s controlling it every step of the way.”

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
Dr Ali Rezai

Dr Jerry Mysiw, chair of the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Ohio State, says it’s the first time in his 30 years in this field that researchers have been able to offer “realistic hope to people who have very challenging lives”.

“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,” Rezai adds. “One of our major goals is to make this readily available to be used by patients at home.”

Burkhart says it was an easy decision to participate in the clinical trial, approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, because he wanted to try to help others with spinal cord injuries.

“I just kind of think that it’s my obligation to society,” Burkhart says. “If someone else had an opportunity to do it in some other part of the world, I would hope that they would commit their time so that everyone can benefit from it in the future.”

He is the first of a potential five participants in a clinical study. Mysiw and Rezai have identified a second patient who is scheduled to start the study in the summer.

“Participating in this research has changed me in the sense that I have a lot more hope for the future now,” says Burkhart. “I always did have a certain level of hope, but now I know, first-hand, that there are going to be improvements in science and technology that will make my life better.”