Unhappy with his progress in rehab after a serious accident left him with a severe spinal cord injury, Ian Burkhart enrolled in a potentially life-changing study in 2014. One step at a time, researchers involved in NeuroLife have been helping Burkhart slowly regain control of his right hand. By directly linking the motor cortex area of Burkhart’s brain to the muscles in the paralyzed limb, the technology has enabled him to swipe a credit card, pick up a mug, and even play Guitar Hero.
Amidst all the progress, there was still something missing; Burkhart’s sense of touch. However, thanks to the incredible work of researchers at Battelle and Ohio University Wexner Medical Center, Burkhart, now 28 years old, has been able to feel the sensation of touch once more.
“Until now, at times Ian has felt like his hand was foreign due to lack of sensory feedback,” Patrick Ganzer, a principal research scientist at Battelle working on the project, said in a statement. “He also has trouble with controlling his hand unless he is watching his movements closely. This requires a lot of concentration and makes simple multitasking like drinking a soda while watching TV almost impossible.”
When Burkhart’s hand is stimulated, small signals still reach his brain, despite them essentially being blocked by his severely damaged spinal cord. Yet these signals (known as subperceptual signals) are too small for his brain to respond to. But they can be detected by a computer linked to his brain, trained to recognize these subperceptual signals (brain-computer interface). In turn the computer triggers haptic feedback (think a game controller rumbling) via a wearable band of vibrational motors placed on skin which Burkhart can feel.
“We're taking subperceptual touch events and boosting them into conscious perception,” Ganzer explained. “When we did this, we saw several functional improvements. It was a big eureka moment when we first restored the participant's sense of touch.”
As explained in the study published in the journal Cell, the procedure simultaneously restored some movement in Burkhart’s hand as well. Meaning that in the future he may be able to pick up an object without seeing it, be able to control multiple devices at once, and even sense how much pressure to use when handling an object.
“The sense of touch is critical for appropriate movement control,” Ganzer told IFLScience. “Even small disruptions in touch capability can have an immense impact on movement capability.”
Whilst the team continue to work on a more portable device, Burkhart is still delighted with this advancement, which has allowed him to detect touch with almost 100 percent accuracy.
“This restoration of touch has improved my capabilities when I am using the system,” Burkhart told IFLScience. “However, [it] is still in a lab only setting and I am looking forward to the day that we can move this from being a research project to a consumer product that can benefit the lives of many more people with paralysis.”