Man with quadriplegia regains ability to pinch and grasp in lab

A man with a spinal cord injury regained limited movement of his fingers, hand and wrist in a lab trial of implanted chip technology that allowed him to harness signals from his brain.

Paralyzed in diving accident, he can harness signals from his brain to control muscles

Ian Burkhart regains some functional use of his hand in the lab through the use of neural bypass technology 2:09

A man with a spinal cord injury regained limited movement of his fingers, hand and wrist in a lab trial of implanted chip technology that allowed him to harness signals from his brain.

Ian Burkhart, 24, was able to swipe a credit card and play a guitar game. 

Burkhart became paralyzed after a diving accident four years ago. In Wednesday's issue of the journal Nature, researchers report he's the first person with quadriplegia to successfully control how his muscles are activated using signals recorded from within the brain's motor cortex.

Previously, investigators were able to translate neural activity into signals only for robotic devices. 

Burkhart is able to move his shoulder and flex his bicep but movements below the elbow are only possible using the technology in the lab in Columbus, Ohio.

Hope for independence

Surgeons implanted the chip in 2014. After three sessions a week for 15 months, he was able to grasp a glass bottle, pour contents into a jar, grasp a stir stick and transfer it without dropping it. It's a demonstration of six basic hand and wrist movements. 

"For me being in a wheelchair and not being able to walk is not the biggest thing, but the lack of independence because you have to rely on so many people for things," Burkhart told reporters.  "The first time I was able to open and close my hand it really gave me that sense of hope that I already had in the back of mind, but this made it more real."

Burkhart is hopeful he will be able to use the system outside of the clinical study to improve his quality of life.

Burkhart's ability to control many motions at once is what sets this approach apart from other brain interfaces, study co-author Nick Annetta, electrical engineering lead at Battelle Memorial Institute, said in an interview. 

The technology was developed at Battelle and the clinical trial takes place at Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center, also in Columbus.

"It's the first time that someone has taken signals from an electrode in the brain and used them to control the person's own muscles to perform functional movement," Annetta said. 

Challenge to get a good signal

Other brain interfaces may use EEG electrodes on the scalp itself to achieve crude hand movements, said Dr. Wolfram Tetzlaff, director of the Icord Research Centre at the University of British Columbia.

Tetzlaff was not involved in the research. His lab is working on ways to protect from the initial damage that occurs after trauma from spinal cord injury.

Tetzlaff estimates it will take a decade or two before the latest approach becomes a widespread clinical treatment. 

The challenge is getting a good quality signal from the brain because of scarring, death of nerve cells and the breakdown of the electrode itself over time, Tetzlaff said. 

"The alternative to these neural bridges would be a biological cure, for example to get the nerve fibres to regenerate," Tetzlaff said. "It would be much nicer to not have to get an implanted device into the brain, which at the moment is rather invasive and has complications."

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