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.”