Researchers have recently reported that Ian Burkhart, a 24-year-old man paralyzed from the shoulders down, was able to move his right hand and wrist for the first time since the accident that left him quadriplegic.
Reportedly, a device implanted in his brain partially restored the function of the man’s hand, allowing him to move his fingers and perform half a dozen hand motions with his thoughts.
Burkhart became quadriplegic, i.e. he lost control over all his four limbs, in the wake of a surfing accident five years ago, when he broke his neck. But two years ago, doctors implanted a device in his brain hoping to reanimate at least his right hand.
The researchers, who have been monitoring the patient ever since, published a paper on the breakthrough Wednesday in the journal Nature.
The study challenges previous belief that spinal cord injuries trigger a full reorganization of brain connections. The new work has found that the damage is less severe and some functions can be artificially restored.
Chad Bouton, lead author of the study and researcher at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, noted that the new technology can virtually bypass damaged areas in the spine and help the patient regain movement. The technology was successfully used in paralyzed laboratory monkeys and people with prosthetic limbs.
But in Burkhart’s case, it is the first time a patient regains functionality of his own body parts.
Burkhart joined Ohio State University’s efforts to cure paralysis shortly after the accident when he learned that a team 25 minutes away from his Ohio home was developing the technology.
Researchers also performed brain scans of the young man while he was trying to move his hand. They first looked for an exact area in the brain called the motor cortex where hand movement requests are processed. Next, they implanted there a device that can record electrical signals released by the man when he is thinking about moving his hand.
The device is wired to a computer equipped with machine-learning technology that can ‘translate’ the electrical signals into body movements. The new data output is finally transmitted to a soft sleeve wrapped around the man’s right forearm, which reanimates the man’s muscles.
The man was over-thrilled when he was first able to open and close his hand. But after intense training sessions, he can now move his fingers and make six hand motions including picking up a glass of water.
Nevertheless, the feat can only be achieved with the man wired to laboratory equipment for now.
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