One of the most painful things that a person can watch is a formerly active person losing the ability to move or feel, effectively becoming paralyzed in certain parts of their body. Science is working to help these type of situations and success recorded with a man paralyzed from his shoulders down is a perfect example of how far we have come.
The paralyzed man, Ian Burkhart, regained the ability to move his fingers due to a computer chip that sends signals from his brain to his muscles. Ian Burkhart who is now 24 broke his neck six years ago after he dove into waves during a beach holiday and has since been unable to move. Ohio University scientists studied images of his brain and asked him to copy hand movements in videos after which they were able to implant the chip into his motor cortex (the area of the brain that controls movement).
The chip works by detecting the electrical activity that arises when Buckhart thinks about moving his hand and sends a message through a cable to a connected computer. Machine learning algorithms then determine which motion is being imagined and send it to an electrode sleeve wrapped around his arm. The sleeve which is custom-made has 130 electrodes embedded in it and delivers electric stimulation to the right forearm muscles.
Ian can now move his right hand (fingers and wrist) in six different ways which include; grasping and picking up small items, wrist flexion, wrist extension, middle flexion, thumb flexion, and hand opening. He has been able to grasp and move large objects, pour water from a glass, move his fingers to play Guitar Hero, and swipe a credit card.
The researchers wrote in their paper; “The electronic neural bypass presented here demonstrates what is possible in the future and can offer hope for movement restoration to people living with paralysis worldwide”. Ian also said; “The first day that we hooked it up I was able to get movement. It was something really small — being able to open and close my hand — but it was something that I hadn’t been able to do for about three years,”.
The system is still far from being perfect though. Right now, it can only be used in a laboratory where Ian trains three times a week and it still does not give him any feeling.