Finger movement has for the first time been restored to the victim of a paralysing spinal injury using “thought control” technology.
American Ian Burkhart, 24, is able to grasp objects, pour and stir drinks, and even play the Guitar Hero computer game using a wearable sleeve that sends electrical impulses to his muscles.
Scientists developed a computer system that can read and decode Ian’s thoughts and translate them into signals tailored for different hand movements, by-passing his broken spinal cord.
The results of the research, published in the journal Nature, mark a leap forward in neural bypass technology which seeks to transform the lives of people robbed of their independence by devastating spinal injuries.
In years to come it is hoped the technology will become easier to operate, moved out of the laboratory and perhaps even be incorporated into clothing.
It could help patients with a wide range of disabilities, including victims of stroke and traumatic brain damage, say the researchers.
Speaking six years after breaking his neck in a swimming accident, Ian, from Dublin, Ohio, said: “I didn’t think anything would happen in my life that would set me back and slow me down this much.
“The first time I was able to open and close my hand, it really gave me that sense of hope for the future that I already had in the back of my mind, but it just made it more real. Now ... things are moving along even better than I imagined. If or when I can use this system outside the clinical setting it will really increase my quality of life and my independence.”
During a three-hour operation in April, 2014, the team implanted a computer chip smaller than a pea into the “hand area” of the motor cortex of Ian’s brain.
The system uses intelligent software to decode nerve signals from the brain generated when Ian imagines making specific movements.
These are translated into tiny electrical shocks fired into controlling muscles through 130 electrodes embedded in a sleeve worn on the forearm. The electrodes are not surgically implanted, but operate by sending signals through the skin.
Ian took 15 months to learn to use the system, which allows him to make isolated finger movements and six different wrist and hand motions.
Today he is able to perform tasks that were previously out of the question, including holding a phone to his ear and swiping a credit card.
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