The field of cybernetics has given quadriplegics, paraplegics, and amputees new hope. A paralyzed Brazilian teenager kicked off the World Cup thanks to a mind-controlled exoskeleton. We’ve got Skywalker-esque bionic arms and monkeys controlling one another’s brains. Lacking limbs or being unable to use them now isn’t so much a chronic condition as it is a scientific opportunity to devise a workaround. As amazing as those workarounds are, they all have one thing in common — the use of robotics. Now, for the first time, a paralyzed man can move his hand via his own thoughts.
The project is a result of a collaboration between The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and tech company Battelle. The crux of the technology is something called Neurobridge technology, which essentially allows patients to bypass the spinal cord entirely. The patient, a 23-year-old quadriplegic named Ian Burkhart, received a surgery a couple months ago in which a small chip was implanted in the area of his brain that controls his right hand. That chip interprets brain signals and transmits them to a computer, which then sends them to a muscle stimulating sleeve worn on the paralyzed limb, all within about one-tenth of a second.
Usually, the brain would send signals to the hand via the spinal cord, but Neurobridge reads the patient’s thoughts, processes them, and sends signals directly to the hand, bypassing the spinal injury, essentially allowing the patient to communicate directly with the muscles in a paralyzed limb. The technology has been in the works for about a decade. Developing the thought-to-signal algorithms as well as the software and sleeve was no small feat, and the team from Battelle first had to demonstrate proof of concept via recorded neural signals. The team started working with researchers and doctors at Ohio State a couple years ago. One of the challenges was figuring out the right place to implant the chip, as well as the proper sequence of electrodes to facilitate actual movement.
Burkhart, who was injured in a diving accident four years ago, was excited for the chance to participate in the clinical trial not just to improve his own mobility, but to help further treatment for all paralyzed patients. He had to learn how to differentiate his own brain signals — for example, the command to rotate his wrist has to be distinguishable from the command to grasp an object. It took Burkhart a few months to get this to work, as well as to rebuild the muscles in his arm. Obviously, it was worth it.