Dawn of bionic age? Paralysed man becomes first to use power of thought to move hand
Published 25/06/2014 | 12:46
A young American paralysed in a swimming accident has become the first patient to move his hand using the power of thought after doctors inserted a microchip into his brain.
Ian Burkhart was able to open and close his fist and even pick up a spoon during the first test of the chip, giving hope to millions of accident victims and stroke sufferers of a new bionic era of movement through thought.
Onlookers described the moment he was able to move by the sheer force of concentration as like watching “science fiction come true”.
Doctors at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center created the “Neurobridge” technology, whereby a microchip reads patients’ thoughts in order to replace signals no longer transmitted by their broken bodies, in conjunction with engineers from Battelle, a non-profit research centre.
While doctors have seen some success in recent years in getting stroke victims to manoeuvre robotic arms using their thoughts, Mr Burkhart is the first to move his own body.
Paralysed from the chest down during a swimming accident four years ago, the 23-year underwent surgery in April to drill into his skull and implant a chip into his brain.
At just 0.15 inch wide, the chip has 96 electrodes which ‘read’ what he is thinking and is housed in a port inside his skull.
After weeks of practice sessions, when Mr Burkhart focused intently on wiggling his fingers while the chip responded by moving an animated hand on a computer screen, the first proper test took place last week.
The port was connected to a computer which decoded the messages sent by his brain and beamed them to a sleeve containing electrodes which was placed around his forearm.
One journalist said that when he was “plugged in” Mr Burkhart resembled Neo, the Keanu Reeves character from “The Matrix” film series.
Mr Burkhart’s first attempt at using his thoughts to move his hand exceeded all his doctors’ expectations. While they had hoped he would be able to move one finger, he was able to curl his seemingly dead hand into a fist, open it out flat and pick up a spoon.
The signals sent by the computer had triggered electrodes in the sleeve which stimulated the muscles in his hand, causing them to move in the same way they would if a message had been sent directly by the brain.
Afterwards, he told CBS: "Today was great. To be able to open and close my hand and do those complex movements that I haven't been able to do for four years was great.
“Physically, it was a foreign feeling. Emotionally it was definitely a sense of hope and excitement to know that it's possible."
Dr Ali Rezai, Mr Burkhart's surgeon, said: "I do believe there will be a day coming soon when somebody who's got a disability – being a quadriplegic or somebody with a stroke, somebody with any kind of brain injury – can use the power of their mind and by thinking, be able to move their arms or legs.”
Mr Burkhart was injured at the age of 19 after diving into the water during a trip to the beach with his friends. Unbeknown to him, a shallow sandbank was hidden under the waves, causing catastrophic damage to his spinal chord.
His friends rescued him and he was airlifted to hospital, but has had to rely on friends and family to perform even the most basic tasks, describing the loss of independence as the most difficult part of dealing with his accident.
From Columbus, Ohio, Mr Burkhart had been a keen lacrosse player before his accident. Determined not to give up on life, he went on to take a college degree and coached his old high school lacrosse team to the state championship finals.
His doctors say he was driven to volunteer to take part in the trials out of a desire to help others in the same position as himself.