In this September 2014 photo provided by Ohio State University, Ian Burkhart participates in a study with neural bypass technology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. A computer chip in Burkhart's brain reads his thoughts, decodes them, then sends signals to a sleeve on his arm, that allows him to move his hand. (Jo McCulty/Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center via AP)
In this March 2016 photo provided by Ohio State University, Ian Burkhart plays a guitar video game as part of a study with neural bypass technology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. A computer chip in Burkhart's brain reads his thoughts, decodes them, then sends signals to a sleeve on his arm, that allows him to move his hand. (Clark Powell/Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center via AP)
Burkhart broke his neck five years ago when he hit the ocean floor while diving off of the coast in North Carolina. The accident left him paralyzed from the chest down with limited movement in his arms and hands, but no feeling in them. On Wednesday, doctors announced Burkhart is able to control his hand using a computer that reads his thoughts and transmits the instructions to the nerves in his hand, bypassing the neck injury.
In 2014, doctors implanted a chip the size of an eraser head in Burkhart’s brain, after he told them he was willing to participate. Burkhart’s father was somewhat hesitant to see his son undergo open brain surgery unnecessarily, but eventually came around to the idea.
“There’s the recovery time, the putting the chip in, taking it out — and in the long run it doesn’t benefit Ian one iota,” Doug Burkhart explained to New York Times. “He was doing it for the general good, to move the science along.”
Doctors opened up the part of the brain associated with hand control but needed to do further testing to figure out just where to put the chip, designed to read individual neurons firing.
“We spent an hour and half working to find the exact location,” the surgeon and director of Ohio State’s Center for Neuromodulation, Dr. Ali Rezai, explained.
Once the chip was implanted, the computer needed to learn to translate Burkhart’s thoughts. For several months, Brukhart watched an avatar hand make movements and tried to think of doing it himself. A computer program monitored his thoughts, matching up specific brain signal patterns with movements shown by the avatar hand. While the computer was translating Burkhart’s thoughts, he was working to remember motion commands that went unused for several years.
“I had to really, really concentrate, just to do these things I did without thinking before,” the 24-year-old said. “But it was like a sport; you work and work and it gradually gets easier.”
Finally, Burkhart’s thoughts were translated into commands directly to his hands.
“Watching him close his hand for the first time — I mean, it was a surreal moment,” Dr. Rezai said. “We all just looked at each other and thought, ‘O.K., the work is just starting.’”
Burkhart can now pick up a bottle and pour the contents into a jar, pick up a straw, stir and even play a guitar video game. While the doctors are thrilled by this development, they recognize the need for further developments. The system only works when Burkhart is in the lab with a big computer plugged into his head.
“If I could take the thing home, it would give me so much more independence. Now, I’ve got to rely on someone else for so many things, like getting dressed, brushing my teeth — all that. I just want other people to hear about this and know that there’s hope. Something will come around that makes living with this injury better.”