Technology helps man use own brainwaves to overcome paralysis

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Two years ago, Ian Burkhart made international headlines when he became the first person to move a paralyzed hand using his own thoughts. (WPVI)

There's more amazing progress from the first person ever to use brainwaves to move a paralyzed hand with his own thoughts.

Ian Burkhart was paralyzed in a diving accident five years ago, and is paralyzed from the middle of his chest down, with no use of his arms below his elbow.

Two years ago, he made international headlines just by moving his hand.

That day, he picked up a spoon.

Now, the 24-year-old man has demonstrated he can do everyday actions.

Burkhart of Dublin, Ohio, can grasp a bottle, pour its contents into a jar, pick up a stick and stir the liquid.

He can grab a credit card and swipe it through a reader. He can move individual fingers and hold a toothbrush.

But he can do these things only for a few hours a week, in a laboratory where he is hooked up to an experimental device that interprets his brain signals and stimulates his muscles with electrodes on his forearm.

"It creates what we call a neuro-bypass over the injured part of the spinal cord and back down to the forearm, bridging over that injury and actually reanimating his paralyzed limb," says Nick Annetta, of Battelle Memorial Institute.

Battelle is working with Ohio State University Wexner School of Medicine on the project.

Despite its successes, the program is in financial danger. Funding for it runs out later this year.

With improvements, researchers hope the system will eventually aid the everyday lives of people like Burkhart with spinal cord injuries, and perhaps others with stroke or traumatic brain injury.

"I always knew maybe someday something would happen, but now I know for sure that something actually is happening," says a thrilled Burkhart.

If and when the device can be used at home, "it will really increase my quality of life and independence," said Burkhart, who is paralyzed over most of his body.

The chip is connected to wires that come from his head and are hooked to an electronic sleeve.

Burkhart's case is described in a paper released Wednesday by the journal "Nature."

It's the latest report from research that has let paralyzed people operate robotic arms, computers and other devices with signals picked up by brain implants, or regain use of paralyzed muscles by sending signals from other muscles they still control.

In contrast, the new report demonstrates that a patient can use a brain implant to stimulate his own paralyzed muscles.

"We're really just eavesdropping on a few conversations between those neurons, and we're trying to figure out what they're talking about," said Chad Bouton, an author of "Nature" who worked on the project while at the Battelle.

He is now at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York.

When Burkhart is in the lab, a cable is attached to a small projection from his skull to carry signals from the sensor to a computer, which interprets what movement he is trying to accomplish.

Then it sends commands to an array of up to 160 electrodes strapped to his forearm. Electrical stimulation from those electrodes activates his hand and finger muscles.

The more the system is used, the more it "learns" about actions Burkhart wants to make.

Burkhart said the stimulation feels like a slight tingle or buzz, noting that he has only a little sensation in his arm because of his injury. He also said his muscles tire after a while.

During the first few months, he became mentally worn out from concentrating on exactly what muscles he needed to move, he said. Now "it's gotten much easier," he said in an interview.

But if he faces a new task or one he has not done for a while, "I kind of have to think about it a little bit beforehand, and really think through what I'm trying to accomplish."

Rezai said Burkhart is getting faster and more fluid in his movements as he and the computer system learn from each other.

Burkhart said he'd like to participate someday in testing a next-generation version of the system that could be used outside the lab.

Researchers said they hope to improve the technology by such steps as making the connections wireless, perhaps placing electrodes on or beneath the scalp rather than in the brain and replacing the strapped-on forearm electrodes with implanted ones.

P. Hunter Peckham, a professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said many paralysis patients are already doing "impressively well" at home with a system that lets them stimulate hand movements with signals generated by other muscles.

But the brain implant approach could be useful for people with more severe injuries who can't control those other muscles, or who need a more complex signal to make particular movements, he said.
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