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Neural Bypass Device Enables a Paralyzed Man to Use His Hands Again

Ian Burkhart, 24, plays a guitar video game as part of a study with neural bypass technology. 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. Image credit: Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center/ Battelle

Spinal cord injury and the often resulting paralysis can be debilitating to the survivors, many of whom go on to require full-time care for their every need. After years of research, a team of physicians and neuroscientists have developed and tested a breakthrough microchip technology called NeuroLife, invented at the research and development organization Battelle. The microchip allows a paralyzed patient to regain motor function using the power of the patient's thoughts. The results of their study were published this week in Nature.

The first recipient of this device is 24-year-old Ian Burkhart of Dublin, Ohio. Six years ago, Burkhart was a college student on vacation with friends at a North Carolina beach. When he dove into one final wave, he could not see the incredibly shallow sandbar beneath the water. Upon impact, he severed his spinal cord at C5, rendering him quadriplegic, or paralyzed in all four limbs. “When I hit, I instantly knew that I was paralyzed,” he tells mental_floss. “From that day on I’ve been working extremely hard at adapting and living my life as a quadriplegic.” 

While Burkhart was adjusting to the shock of quadriplegia, his doctors at Ohio State University (OSU) were working with researcher Chad Bouton, at Battelle at the time, to perfect their neural bypass system. The neural bypass works by surgically implanting a microchip about the size of a pencil eraser into the motor cortex of a patient’s brain and then hooking it up through electrodes to a wearable sleeve on the arm. The system then records and translates the neural signals as the patient thinks about making movements and reroutes them to the sleeve on the arm and hand, stimulating the muscles to move through the patient’s control.

The Batelle researchers joined forces with the OSU team to design a clinical trial. “Our goal was to bypass a damaged spinal cord from an accident and allow brain signals to be linked to an external, wearable garment device, that allows the patient to be more independent in his function,” Ali Rezai, a neurosurgeon at OSU, tells mental_floss. Ian’s surgery, which took place in April, 2014, was a success, and then the real work began for Burkhart and the team. 

Over 15 months of intensive weekly sessions in the lab, Burkhart was instructed to concentrate on imagining his own hand making movements demonstrated either by a computer avatar or by simple verbal instructions. This was not casual concentration, but extreme focus that Burkhart calls “mentally exhausting. Like taking a seven-hour exam.”

As Burkhart makes these movements, the software records his brain signals. Bouton says, “We send those signals to a computer, and in the computer we are trying to learn the language, if you will, of those neurons that are associated with and responsible for planning and executing specific movements.” He likens this process to a person landing in a country where they do not speak a single word of the language and learning it by pointing at objects and pairing the resulting word or phrase by association. 

Now Burkhart can grip a credit card and slide it through a reader; pick up a bottle, pour the contents into another jar, and then stir the contents; and move individual fingers in such a way as to allow him to play a bit of the video game Guitar Hero, among other movements.

“That first bit of movement in my hands a year and a half ago was an extremely exciting day,” says Burkhart. “It restored my hope and faith that there would be a technological breakthrough to allow me more movement.”

For Bouton, who had been working on this project for over a decade, the clinical trial was nothing short of astonishing. “We have been absolutely amazed by what Ian has been able to do,” he says. “He has just made tremendous progress.”

Teaching the computer algorithm to learn the exact patterns of movements was no simple task, however. There are millions of kinds of neural combinations to get the right muscle stimulation patterns, and they needed to isolate out just a few hundred neurons. “We weren’t sure if we could discriminate between the different brain signals for individual finger movements, but we were able to do that,” Bouton says.

Even more remarkable, says Rezai, is that “the machine and Ian’s brain are learning together to refine the movements.”

“We let the software improve itself every couple of minutes,” says Bouton. “It learns the activity and improves and then Ian is actually channeling his thoughts and refining his thought patterns on the movements at the same time. After about 10 or 15 minutes, we see the performance increase significantly.”

Burkhart feels “privileged to have been in the right place at the right time to participate in the study.”

As successful as this trial has been, Bouton says it is “just the tip of the iceberg.” He wants to see the technology become entirely implantable, invisible, and even wireless so that patients can truly have a normal quality of life while wearing the device.

“My hope is that within a decade, we will have significant advances so that these brain-to-computer devices can improve people’s lives,” says Rezai. 

Meanwhile, Burkhart is finishing his BA in business management and doing an internship with a CPA. He finds himself “extremely optimistic” about the future of advancements in this field to make his life “easier and better.” 

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History
When Chuck Yeager Tweeted Details About His Historic, Sound Barrier-Breaking Flight

Seventy years ago today—on October 14, 1947—Charles Elwood Yeager became the first person to travel faster than the speed of sound. The Air Force pilot broke the sound barrier in an experimental X-1 rocket plane (nicknamed “Glamorous Glennis”) over a California dry lake at an altitude of 25,000 feet.

In 2015, the nonagenarian posted a few details on Twitter surrounding the anniversary of the achievement, giving amazing insight into the history-making flight.

For even more on the historic ride, check out the video below.

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Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0
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Space
8 Facts About the Accomplished Female Astronomer Caroline Herschel
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Caroline Herschel (1750–1848) was a German woman who made great contributions to science and astronomy. 

1. SHE WAS THE FIRST WOMAN TO DISCOVER A COMET.

Herschel spotted the comet (called 35P/Herschel-Rigollet) in December of 1788. Because its orbital period is 155 years, 35P/Herschel-Rigollet will next be visible to humans in the year 2092.

2. SHE INITIALLY WORKED AS A HOUSEKEEPER.

In her early twenties, Herschel moved from Germany to England to be a singer. Her brother William (the astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus and infrared radiation) gave her singing lessons, and she was his housekeeper. She later became his assistant, grinding and polishing the mirrors for his telescopes.

3. BUT SHE LATER TURNED HER REAL PASSION INTO A PAYING GIG.

Herschel was the first female scientist to ever be paid for her work. Starting in 1787, King George III paid her £50 per year to reward her for her scientific discoveries.

4. SHE WAS TECHNICALLY A LITTLE PERSON.

Herschel was only 4 feet 3 inches tall—her growth was stunted due to typhus when she was 10 years old.

5. SHE BROKE BARRIERS, EARNING RESPECT FROM THE HERETOFORE MALE-ONLY SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY.

Herschel was the first woman to receive a Gold Medal from London’s Royal Astronomical Society, in 1828. The second woman to receive one was well over 150 years later, in 1996.

6. SHE CHEATED AT MATH … KIND OF.

Because Herschel was female and thus wasn’t allowed to learn math as a child, she used a cheat sheet with the multiplication tables on it when she was working.

7. EARTH'S MOON HONORS HER LEGACY.


NASA/LRO_LROC_TEAM, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A crater on the moon is named in honor of Herschel—it’s called C. Herschel. The small crater is located on the west side of Mare Imbrium, one of the moon's large rocky plains.

8. SHE GARNERED AWARDS WELL INTO HER NINETIES.

For her 96th birthday, Prussian King Frederick William IV authorized that Herschel receive an award: the Gold Medal for Science.

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