Ian Burkhart, a 23-year-old quadriplegic from Dublin, Ohio, was injured in 2010 in a diving accident, breaking his neck on a sandbar and paralysing his body from the neck down. He has some use of his arms, but was left unable to move his legs, hands and fingers.
Thanks to a new device known as the Neurobridge, though, Burkhart has now moved his right hand and fingers for the first time since the accident -- signalling a brighter future for paralysis patients.
Neurobridge, a collaborative project developed by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and applied science development non-profit Battelle, is a system that allows the brain signal to bypass the site of injury -- in Burkhart's case, his spinal cord -- sending it directly to the muscle.
Two months ago, neurosurgeon Dr Ali Rezai of Ohio State University performed brain surgery on Burkhart, implanting a sensor chip smaller than a pea into the motor cortex of his brain. This chip reads and interprets the electrical activity in Burkhart's brain, sending it to a computer.
The computer then recodes the signal, and sends it to a high-definition electrode stimulation sleeve Burkhart wears on his right arm, a process that takes less than a tenth of a second and allows Burkhart to move his paralysed digits.
"The surgery required the precise implantation of the micro-chip sensor in the area of Ian's brain that controls his arm and hand movements," Dr Rezai said.
A team led by Chad Bouton at Battelle spent nearly a decade developing the algorithms, software and sleeve. Two years ago, Dr Ali Rezai and Dr Jerry Mysiw were brought on board to design the clinical trials.
"I've been doing rehabilitation for a lot of years, and this is a tremendous stride forward in what we can offer these people," said Dr Mysiw. "Now we're examining human-machine interfaces and interactions, and how that type of technology can help."
Burkhart, a former lacrosse player, was the first of five potential patients in a clinical study of the technology.
"It's definitely great for me to be as young as I am when I was injured because the advancements in science and technology are growing rapidly and they're only going to continue to increase," Burkhart said.