The promotional video above made by Battelle and the Ohio State University tells you everything you need to know about Ian Burkhart, a 24-year-old who injured his spine diving at the beach six years ago.
Four years after the accident, Burkhart got a chip placed in his brain that lets him move his paralyzed thumb and fingers again.
The chip records neurons inside his head as he thinks about moving his hand. Then those signals are routed to a special sleeve on his wrist covered with electrodes that zap currents into his arm muscles.
Now, just by thinking about it, Burkhart can open and close his hand, and also move individual fingers. In the video, he plays air guitar, albeit pretty slowly.
The setup is what’s called a “neural bypass.” Battelle, an independent research organization, and Ohio State carried out the experiment and reported details of Burkhart’s experience Wednesday in Nature.
Other patients have controlled robots with their thoughts before this. And 10 years ago, German scientists connected a head-worn EEG monitor to a hand-stimulating system, creating a simple neural bypass.
But Burkhart is the first person to have a direct artificial link from the neurons in his cortex to his own paralyzed limb (since then, there’s been one more).
Scientists asked Burkhart to think through every movement. That can be exhausting. “It’s like taking a seven- or eight-hour exam,” he says. “For the first 19 years of my life, I just took it for granted that my hand would do what I tell it to. Now I have to think about it and break it apart.”
Whether this type of neuroprosthetic technology will ever be useful is an open question. There just aren’t that many paralyzed people, so commercial interest is basically nil. And receiving a brain implant remains a radical step.
It’s also far from practical. A thick cable has to be connected to a port in Burkhart’s head to link it to the electronic sleeve, which itself has to be readjusted depending on what movement he wants to make. (In a few years, wireless brain chips being developed could simplify things.)
That means Burkhart only uses the setup in the lab. Even so, when I asked Burkhart if he would take it home with him, he said he’d do it in a flash. “It’s not just turn-on and go,” he says. “But the limitations are easily outweighed by the benefit of being able to grasp something and move it around.”