Incredible chip implant allows quadriplegic man to regain hand movement

14 Apr 2016

Battelle’s Nick Annetta (right) watches as Ian Burkhart plays a guitar video game using his paralyzed hand, via The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center

An American man paralysed in a diving accident six years ago has regained movement in his hand thanks to a cutting-edge microchip implanted in his brain.

Developed by Battelle and the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, a new device called NeuroLife has helped a quadriplegic man regain hand function through a novel approach to neuroscience and technology.

Ian Burkhart was paralysed after he injured his spine in a bad accident in 2010. But now NeuroLife acts as a middleman between his brain and his hand, bypassing his spinal chord and delivering signals to allow Burkhart do things like swipe credit cards or play Guitar Hero.

This electronic neural bypass for spinal cord injuries reconnects the brain directly to muscles, meaning Burkhart’s thoughts drive the function in his paralysed limb. The device reads the brain signals and connects to a sleeve on his arm that stimulates the muscles that control his hand.

Regaining movement after spinal injury

“We’re showing for the first time that a quadriplegic patient is able to improve his level of motor function and hand movements,” said Dr Ali Rezai, a co-author of the study, which appears in Nature.

Burkhart is the first person ever to have trialled such a tool, saying he did it as it’s his “obligation to society”.

“If someone else had an opportunity to do it in some other part of the world, I would hope that they would commit their time so that everyone can benefit from it in the future.”

The neural bypass technology combines algorithms that learn and decode the user’s brain activity and a high-definition muscle stimulation sleeve that translates neural impulses from the brain and transmits new signals to the paralysed limb.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic