For many, paralysis or limb loss is a lifelong burden, and scientists across the world have been working around the clock to restore movement to these unfortunate few. Now, a new Nature study showcases what is not just a step but a leap forward in medical science.
A young man, who became a quadriplegic during a diving accident, is today able to grasp objects and even play video games using his own hand and fingers, after a novel device was surgically inserted into his brain. This remarkable breakthrough, spearheaded by researchers at The Ohio State University (OSU) Wexner Medical Center, promises to revolutionize the way paralysis is treated in the future.
“This is the first technique of its kind,” study co-author Chad Bouton of the New York-based Feinstein Institute for Medical Research told IFLScience. “Neural recordings have been linked back to the body to allow movement in a human.”
How to move a paralyzed hand. Nature Video via YouTube.
The patient, Ian Burkhart, is a 24-year-old quadriplegic from Ohio, whose neural connections between his brain and limbs were severed. This type of paralysis used to be incurable, but as demonstrated just last October, quadriplegia can be partly overcome: Surgeons managed to restore partial functions to patients’ hands and arms by connecting healthy nerves to damaged ones.
This new technique involves a different surgical method. A device called NeuroLife, invented by the non-profit research and development organization Battelle, is a pea-sized array of electrodes designed to send brain signals down to a paralyzed limb via connections outside the body.
“Those first movements gave me hope,” Burkhart said in a press conference. “People won’t look at me and think I’m a cyborg.”
Unfortunately, restoring movement is not that simple. Translating electrical signals from the brain into actions is incredibly difficult; even the U.S. military’s scientific research wing – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – recognizes that.
To overcome this challenge, researchers from Battelle painstakingly recorded neural signals being generated in a paralyzed person’s motor cortex, the brain region that controls movement, before gradually deciphering which signals corresponded to which type of movement.
Over the course of a decade, they amalgamated these signals into a series of algorithms designed to “understand” these neural impulses. Through their efforts, and in collaboration with OSU, they successfully managed to box up these algorithms in the NeuroLife device.
Ian Burkhart plays a guitar video game, demonstrating he now has precision movement restored in his hand and fingers. Ohio State University/Battelle
After carefully implanting one end of the device into Burkhart’s brain, the other end was connected to his right arm and hand via small cables running down his sleeve, bypassing his damaged spinal cord. In 2014, he first demonstrated the use of the device by opening and closing his hand by simply thinking about it.
This was followed by months of training sessions designed to both reacquaint his brain with his arm and to allow him to strengthen the muscles he had long-since been unable to use. Today, he is now able to use his hand and, significantly, his fingers to perform far more complex, precision-based tasks, including holding a phone to his ear, swiping a credit card, and picking up cutlery. He can even play the video game Guitar Hero.
“It’s important from a psychological view, to move your own limb,” Dr. Ali Rezai, a co-author of the study and a neurosurgeon at OSU, told IFLScience. “Playing a video game is just an element of normal life, and that's all Ian wanted.”
Far from just treating paralysis, the uses of this technique are theoretically endless. “In the future, this could be used to help victims of stroke and those with brain damage,” Bouton added. “With this research, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.”