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Brain Implant Gives Paralyzed Man Use of Hand

Becoming paralyzed in a severe auto accident changes a person’s life forever. Now researchers are finding new ways improve paralysis victims’ quality of life. A new brain implant gives one paralyzed man use of his hand that he thought was gone forever.

Chad Bouton of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York, recently published an article in Nature, which features Ian Burkhart of Dublin, Ohio. Burkhart broke his neck six years ago when he was a freshman in college. He dove into a wave in the ocean and was slammed into a sand bar. He was paralyzed from the chest down and lost the use of his arms below the elbow.

Then in 2014, Burkhart met Chad Burton while he was working at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio. Burton is developing a brain implant to help paralyzed patients regain motor control. He and his team of surgeons placed a tiny device made up of 96 electrodes just below the surface of Burkhart’s brain. The device monitors a group of brain cells that control movement of his right hand, taking 3 million readings every second.

The brain implant communicates with a computer in the laboratory by a cable that connects to a small projection on Burkhart’s skull. The computer interprets the readings and sends impulses to the muscles in his forearm using 160 electrodes, controlling his fingers and hand. Burton explains:

“We’re really just eavesdropping on a few conversations between those neurons and we’re trying to figure out what they’re talking about.”

While in the lab, Burkhart has a lot of fine motor control. Pantagraph reports:

“Ian 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 the brain implant still has some major limitations. The computer can’t go home with Burkhart, so on a day-to-day basis, he is still paralyzed. Even when he is using the brain implant, the muscles in his arm get tired quickly. It also takes conscious thought and concentration to move his muscles, so he can get mentally worn out over time.

Dr. Ali Rezai, a study author and neurosurgeon at Ohio State University said:

“This is taking one’s thoughts and, within milliseconds, linking it to concrete movements.”

Researchers hope that this is one more step toward the end goal of fully restoring use of muscles after a paralyzing injury. Until then, Burkhart and other paralyzed accident victims will have to settle for incremental gains along the way, like this lab-bound brain implant.

David Christensen is a brain injury expert at Christensen Law in Southfiled, Michigan. He helps paralysis victims get their medical expenses paid for after an auto accident. If you or someone you love has been paralyzed in a car crash, contact Christensen Law today for a free consultation.