There’s some incredible news out of Columbus, Ohio. A man has been given a chance to take back a significant part of his life after a catastrophic injury severely damaged his spinal cord.
While on vacation in 2010, Ian Burkart dove into a wave and struck an unseen sandbar that instantly paralyzed him. Ian was not planning on giving up on living his life to the fullest.
Since 2014, Ian has been working with researchers at Battelle, a non-profit, and the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center on new technologies to help restore the use of his right arm. With what’s being considered a “scientific breakthrough,” they have succeeded in connecting neural signals between Burkhart’s brain and arm. This breakthrough system is able to harness signals that are usually too small to perceive, enhances them, and sends them to the patient. Researchers have published a report in detail in the journal Cell.
Battelle research scientist Patrick Ganzer said in a statement: “We’re taking sub-perceptual touch events and boosting them into conscious perception. It was a big eureka moment when we first restored the participant’s sense of touch.”
The technology they used is called the brain-computer interface (BCI) system, which implants a small computer chip in the brain and places a series of electrodes on the patient’s skin. Once the connection was made to Burkhart’s arm, wires route the movement signals from his brain straight to the muscles — avoiding the damage caused by the 28-year-old’s spinal injury.
Since patients who have suffered a “clinically complete” spinal cord injury still have a few remnants of nerve fiber that survived the injury, the BCI helps the body boost the signals from those remaining fibers and gets the brain to respond to them. Because of this, researchers say Burkhart now has enough control over his arm to lift a cup, swipe a credit card, or even play video games like Guitar Hero.
The system pretty much works like how a video game controller uses haptic feedback to get the user’s attention by using vibration or other such force. The BCI helps the touch signals coming from the patient’s skin to reach the brain as understandable haptic feedback.
Ian exclaims, “It has been amazing to see the possibilities of sensory information coming from a device that was originally created to only allow me to control my hand in a one-way direction,” seeing as how the success with Burkhart has led to other surprising improvements in the BCI system.
Researchers were thrilled to see that Ian has been able to detect an object by touch alone without having to see it. He’s also been able to experience movement and the sense of touch at the same time and can sense how much pressure to apply to an object he’s holding — depending on if it’s light or heavy.
Now, scientists are hoping to design a BCI that can be worn like a sleeve at home and can be easily taken on or off. These breakthroughs are a welcoming beacon of hope. The future seems to be so close that you can reach out and touch it.