Thoughts Move Paralyzed Muscles

Technology that links brain activity directly to movement.
Marsha Lewis, Contributing Producer

(Inside Science TV) –  Ian Burkhart was 19 years old and enjoying a day at the beach when an accident occurred. Ian describes that fateful day:  

“I was playing in the waves in the ocean. I dove into a wave which pushed me down into a sandbar where I snapped my neck.  I injured my spinal cord at the C-5 level which means I have pretty good function of my biceps but no function from about my elbows down.  So, I can move my arm around but I can’t move my hands or anything below that."

Now, Burkhart is a quadriplegic and is confined to a wheelchair most of the day. “The hardest thing for me being a quadriplegic is my loss of independence," he said. "There are a lot of things I need to ask someone for help with now.”

But now Burkhart is helping researchers develop technology that could get him moving again.

“Neurobridge is a technology we’ve developed to link brain activity directly to movement," said Chad Bouton, a research leader at Battelle, the world’s largest nonprofit research and development organization.

The technology reads a person's thoughts to help move paralyzed muscles, all thanks to a computer chip surgically embedded in the motor cortex, the brain region responsible for movement. This chip has electrodes that detect the electrical signals produced when neurons fire in the motor cortex.

In Burkhart’s case, these neurons are still sending the same signals they always did, but his spinal injury prevents the signals from getting where they ought to go. The chip in Burkhart’s brain acts like a detour, detecting these signals and sending them out to a computer.

“We’re actually decoding or deciphering those signals,” Bouton said, “so we can tell what kind of movement a person is thinking about and would actually like to achieve.”

That signal is then transmitted to a sleeve fitted around Burkhart's arm, which stimulates his muscles to move, activating the ones he is thinking of in a split second.

“Once we are able to recognize those signals in the brain,” Bouton said, “we’re able to actually route them around the spinal cord injury, and then translate the signals into a language the muscles can understand.”

In its current state, Neurobridge requires patients like Burkhart to focus deeply. “In order for me to pick up [an object],” he said, “I really have to concentrate on going into a rest state initially, so I can kind of calm down my brain activity.” He then has to focus on opening his hand and then closing it as tight as he can.

Using this technology, Ian is the first quadriplegic person to move his fingers and his hand just by thinking about it.

“It was a surreal experience to see my hand moving, but I can’t really feel my hand moving," said Burkhart. "Since I lack the sensation on my hands, I had to really rely on my sight,” he said, “but knowing I could control my hand to open and close it to pick something up was a great feeling."

“I’ll remember that first moment when we turned on the system and Ian…was just trying to open and close his hand, but he was able to do it," said Bouton "And it was absolutely an amazing moment.”

This is a major move forward for Burkhart and for Neurobridge, but neurosurgeon Darlene Lobel of the Cleveland Clinic believes there's still more work to be done.

“There are other similar technologies that involve brain implants of electrodes such as this,” Lobel said, making Neurobridge effective but not necessarily unique. Researchers like Lobel also wonder how the embedded chip’s electrodes will hold up through the years. “Some of these electrodes over a period of time will either stop working or they will not work as well,” she said, so “it will be important to see the long-term studies with Neurobridge to know whether these electrodes continue to work and have stability over time.”

But for Burkhart, Neurobridge is already having a huge impact, letting him perform simple tasks like picking up a mug on his own for the first time in four years.

“The biggest thought for me is the sense of hope for the future,” Burkhart said, “to see if they can take some technology like this and push it along forward."

Get Inside The Science:

New Device Allows Brain To Bypass Spinal Cord, Move Paralyzed Limbs

Chad Bouton, Battelle

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Author Bio & Story Archive

Marsha Lewis is a freelance producer based in California.  She has won 11 National Telly Awards and nine Regional Emmy Awards for her work in local and national syndicated news.

I’ve dedicated my time to reporting and producing stories focused on medical, science and technology. I created a nationally award winning series dedicated to promoting women and their great accomplishments.  Now I’ve taken that expertise outside the traditional TV news format and broadened the viewership to people around the world.