Implanted Brain Chip Allows Paralyzed Man to Regain Hand Movement


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Lauren Scrudato, Associate Editor

A 24-year-old paralyzed man is now able to move his right hand again, thanks to a system that decodes his brain activity and bypasses the spinal cord injury.

“This study marks the first time that a person living with paralysis has regained movement with recorded signals from the brain,” said Chad Bouton, lead researcher, currently at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y.

The development has been reported in the journal Nature.

The patient, Ian Burkhart, broke his neck after diving into an ocean wave that pushed him down into a sandbar at the age of 19. He has been paralyzed from the shoulders down ever since, although he does have some residual elbow movement.

Burkhart expressed to his doctors that he was willing to undergo experimental treatment. So in April of 2014, he underwent surgery to have a microchip implanted in the motor cortex region of his brain. When Burkhart was asked to think about moving his arm, the chip would record the neuron activity and send it to a computer. Machine-learning algorithms translated and relayed the signals directly to a sleeve of electrodes on his forearm – bypassing the injured area.

“The first day that we hooked it up I was able to get movement. It was something really small — being able to open and close my hand — but it was something that I hadn’t been able to do for about three years,” said Burkhart.

A similar “neural bypass” procedure has been done in monkeys before, but this is the first attempt on a human patient.

After spinal-cord injuries, the brain rewires its connections. But this latest development shows that the degree of reorganization in the brain may be less severe than previously thought, enabling scientists to bypass damaged areas to regain limb movement.

Burkhart attends training sessions up to three times a week. He is now able to make isolated finger movements and perform six different hand and wrist movements, including holding a glass of water or even playing the video game Guitar Hero.

However, Burkhart’s progress marks the beginning of a long journey before he or any other patients could potentially regain full movement. For example, one aspect of the system that needs improving is the sensing capability of the neuroprosthetic. The implant uses just 96 electrodes to record a small number of neurons, compared to the millions involved in movement. The decoding algorithm also needs to be faster.

As of now, the system’s use is restricted to the lab, and it must be recalibrated before each session, which is a time-consuming and technical task. Burkhart also cannot feel the objects he’s touching, so he is unable to effectively adjust grip and strength. He also struggles to pick up objects out of view.

Similar methods have produced small-scale successes, including a brain-computer technology created at the University of California, Irvine, that enabled a paralyzed patient to walk for a short distance, as well as the use of exoskeletons to accomplish the same feat.