It seems these days technology has no limit. Ian Burkhart knows this in the most literal sense. Burkhart, now 24 years old, couldn’t have imagined that his hands and brain would ever communicate following an accident he suffered 4 years ago in North Carolina. Then, as a freshman in college, Burkhart broke his neck and became paralyzed, from his chest to his legs.
The spinal injury permanently cut off feeling in his hands and legs. However, his friends and relatives breathed a sigh of relief following the announcement published in the Journal Nature. Using a chip implant in his brain, the doctors said Burkhart could now regain control of his hand and fingers.
This is another first in medicine. Referred to as limb reanimation, the technology overlooks the spinal injury and conveys thoughts directly to the muscles in his hand. Initially, the lad couldn't know what his hands were doing - he literally had to look at them.
However, the doctors were quick to point out that it’s too early to celebrate yet. Even though Burkhart can now move his hands, it doesn’t mean his paralysis has been cured. He has to remain in the lab, connected to computers.
At first, his family wasn't excited about this idea. They feared the unknown. But Burkhart had different views. “I knew I was going to be taken care of, and something is going to come along to help people like me eventually,” he said.
A team of surgeons from Ohio State started operating on him in 2014. They first separated his motor cortex, the part of his brain responsible for controlling the hands. After implanting the chip in the area, he was given time to recover from the surgery.
After recovery, he underwent rigorous training in the lab. As he tried moving his hands, the chip picked the pattern and fed them to a port on the back of his skull that was connected to a computer through a cable. The software that helped pick the patterns was developed by scientists from Battelle Memorial Institute.
The training lasted 12 months - and to prove it wasn’t a waste of time, Burkhart emptied bottle contents into a jar. He could also pick a straw and use it to stir. While it might not seem like much to us, to him it was huge. Ian and the team behind limb reanimation are giving us hope for a better future.
Image credit: wexnermedical.osu.edu