In a fascinating instance of mind over matter, science fiction became reality when a young paralyzed man, who was hurt in a swimming accident that left him with no movement in his limbs from the elbow down, became the first person in the world to move his hand using the power of thought. Ian Burkhart, a 23-year-old Columbus, Ohio native, elected to have neurosurgery that inserted a microchip into his brain, which combined with electrodes and a computer allowed his thoughts to bypass his broken and damaged spinal cord, and move his paralyzed limb.
Doctors at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, who are testing their “Neurobridge” technology in conjunction with engineers from Battelle, a non-profit research center that works to restore motion to paralyzed limbs, have given much-needed hope to millions of people worldwide, who are unable to move their bodies due to accidents or medical conditions such as strokes. This is potentially the dawn of the bionic era, where microchips can decipher patients’ thoughts and replace neuron signals that can no longer be transmitted because of damaged nerves, allowing paralyzed individuals to move.
Burkhart, an Ohio University student, was 19 when a trip to a nearby beach changed his life forever. Burkhart and his friends had gone to North Carolina’s Outer Banks to celebrate the end of freshman year. Swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, the young man dived into the inviting waters, unaware that a shallow sand bank was present under the waves. He slammed into the barrier and broke his neck, causing catastrophic damage to his spinal cord.
Though rescued by his friends and airlifted to a nearby hospital, Burkhart could no longer function independently, needing assistance for the most basic of life tasks. As he struggled with everyday needs, the paralyzed man heard about the trials and volunteered to undergo the elective procedures. The rest, as it is said, is history.
When Burkhart opened and closed his fist, and picked up a spoon using his paralyzed hand, activities he had been unable to perform since his accident in 2010, he became the first paralyzed man in the world to use the power of thought to move an otherwise useless limb, demonstrating how the mind can be harnessed to triumph over matter.
Burkhart underwent complicated brain surgery in April wherein neurosurgeons placed a 0.15 inch-wide microchip with 96 electrodes in a port that was drilled into his skull. These electrodes were connected to a computer and used an algorithm that ‘read’ his thoughts and sent the messages from his brain to a sleeve with electrodes, which was placed on his forearm.
As Burkhart focused his thoughts, the decoded messages from his brain triggered the electrodes in his sleeve, which in turn stimulated the otherwise unresponsive muscles in his arm and caused them to move in the same way as it does for people who are not paralyzed. Chad Bouton, a research leader at Battelle compared the procedure to a cardiac bypass surgery, but instead of blood, the microchip allows the bypassing of electrical signals.
After the historic first test of the ‘Neurobridge’ technology, which had succeeded beyond expectations, Burkhart said he was overjoyed about being able to use his hand for the first time in four years. Calling it a foreign feeling, he expressed a sense of hope about the future.
While the researchers, Burkhart and millions of patients like him rejoiced at this phenomenal breakthrough of mind over matter, the harnessing of the power of thought to move a paralyzed man’s hand is but one step in a field brimming with potential. Ali Rezai, Burkhart’s surgeon strongly believes that the future will see people with disabilities, whether a quadriplegic or a stroke sufferer, being able to use their thinking processes to move their arms or legs.
By Monalisa Gangopadhyay