How did a quadriplegic man regain control of his hand?

Six years after a diving accident left him paralyzed from the shoulders down, Ian Burkhart, a young American man, can now perform complex movements with his right hand using a microchip implanted in his brain. In this study published in Nature, the researchers explain that he is now able to grasp objects and even stir his coffee. But how could this promising first success be possible?

Ian Burkhart was a 19 year-old student when he broke his neck diving in shallow water, leaving him quadriplegic. When Chad E. Bouton's team at the Feinstein Institute for medical research asked him to participate in a study aiming to restore his lost motor functions, Ian seized the opportunity. In April 2014 (two years after his accident), neurosurgeons implanted a microchip (smaller than a pea) in his brain's motor cortex. The chip is composed of 96 mini-electrodes that record the electrical signals transmitted by the neurons, which are then decoded by a computer (via a cable that is connected to the back of Ian's head). The data is then transmitted (in less than a tenth of a second) to the paralyzed muscles through a bracelet of electrodes attached around the wrist. Ian only has to imagine the movements he wants to perform to make his muscles respond. This system, known as Neurolife, was developed by the Batelle Institute in Ohio in collaboration with the University of Ohio.

While Ian was able to open and close his hand by thinking about the movements only two months after the chip was implanted, it took fifteen months of intense practice (three sessions a week) to “control” the information sent by the brain and reawaken his atrophied muscles. Today, he is able to move his fingers, hand, wrist and arm, allowing him to perform activities like holding a phone, using a glass, or playing Guitar Heroes!

“This study marks the first time that a person living with paralysis has regained movement by using signals recorded from within the brain,” said C.E. Bouton, who led the research, during a press conference. This success shows that the “bypass” approach, where the connection between the brain and muscles is reestablished without the use of the spinal cord, warrants more attention. This includes more complex movements that can help victims of paralysis regain control of their bodies. Researchers are also trying to develop a wireless system to connect patient thoughts without the use of the cumbersome cables still necessary today. This could considerably improve patient autonomy, not just in the hospital, but both inside and outside the home.

In a few months, four other patients will benefit from Neurolife technology as part of a new clinical trial.
Source: Chad E. Bouton et coll., Restoring cortical control of functional movement in a human with quadriplegia, in Nature, 13-04-2016.


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