COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nearly six years after being paralyzed from his chest down, Ian Burkhart has regained control of his right hand and fingers with the help of a computer chip implanted in his brain and other technology that bypass his spinal injury — what his doctors hailed as a “major milestone” in the rapidly evolving field to help those with debilitating injuries.
His doctors first published a study about Burkhart’s success in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
A computer chip, about the size of pea, was implanted in his brain two years ago as part of the groundbreaking study. The chip reads his thoughts and feeds them through a cable that runs to a computer and then sends signals to a sleeve on his arm, allowing him to move his hand.
Burkhart, 24, said he was proud to take part in a study “to help push the envelope” and one he hopes will lead to breakthroughs in the quality of everyday life for people with paralysis and other injuries.
“I know how much your life has changed with an injury like this,” he said. “It’s a big adjustment when you go from one day being able to do anything with your body to the next day being controlled and locked in by your body. But with something like this, it gives you all this hope for the future — that things are moving in the right direction.”
Burkhart first opened and closed his hand shortly after the initial operation in April 2014. “But it was still not that responsive and something that was kind of jarring in a sense,” he said, “because it was just big muscle movements and not well controlled.”
“Fast forward two years, we’ve been able to do a lot more.”
Simple daily tasks made possible again
For instance, he’s picked up a credit card and run it through a swiper; he’s grabbed a coffee mug and lifted it to his mouth; he’s picked up a toothbrush and brushed his teeth, among other things.
Those might seem like small feats to most people, said Dr. Ali Rezai, the co-author of the study and a neurosurgeon at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.
“But that’s a huge gain for these patients. It’s amazing for the patient to see a hand that’s been lifeless for five years to move again on command,” Rezai said.
“As a neurosurgeon, I’m very passionate about this science and the advances and the innovation. But at the end of the day, we do this for one simple reason: That’s Ian and providing him and millions of others across the world with disabilities with the hope for a better future.”
Rezai said the next step is to make the device wireless and less clunky, so Burkhart can take it home and use it every day. Currently, he has to come to the laboratory three times a week and hook up to the bulky system.
“The goal is to make this solution be used in the daily lives of people with disabilities,” Rezai said. “It’s really about having patients be more independent and have more control and autonomy.”
Dr. Jerry Mysiw, the chairman of Ohio State’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, said, “In the 30 years I’ve been in this field, this is the first time we’ve been able to offer realistic hope to people who have very challenging lives.”
The chip isn’t a cure for paralysis
The device was invented by the technology company Battelle, which ultimately teamed up with the physicians and neuroscientists at Ohio State to bring it to fruition.
The device is not a cure for paralysis, but rather a first-of-a-kind technology allowing a quadriplegic new mobility for the first time.
Burkhart was a freshman at Ohio University, majoring in video production and playing on a club lacrosse team, when he went to the beach with friends that summer.
On June 13, 2010, he made an ill-fated dive into a wave off the shores of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The accident left him paralyzed from his elbows down. He remembers that moment “vividly,” but chooses not to dwell on it.
“When I had my accident, I was 19 years old. I lost a lot of my independence,” he said. “I was given this diagnosis of not being able to use my hands or my legs for the rest of my life. So I knew from that point, I had to look for other options. I wasn’t just going to settle for living with that.”
His family initially objected to him taking part in the study, fearing the brain surgery could leave him worse off. But he said he believed in his doctors and the technology and was willing to take the risk.
“I just felt that I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to have this opportunity,” he said.
Computer and man are learning from each other
He said the results have so far outpaced his expectations. “I thought I’d probably be able to see something in my lifetime that would be able to benefit me and a bunch of other people.”
“I certainly didn’t think it would be as quick as it has.”
He said he and the device learn from one another every time he goes to the lab.
“It’s getting faster and faster as I use the system more and more, and it becomes more natural to me. The computer is also learning about me,” he said. “It works better and better, so we’ll be able to improve the speed by which we’re able to learn new tasks in the future.”
His portion of the study is due to end in July, but he said they’ve asked the Food and Drug Administration for an extension. He said he hopes more doctors, researchers and technology specialists get involved and work together to make further advances.
Burkhart said he’d like for the device to be wireless so he no longer has a “huge cable that sticks out of my head” and other improvements.
“If you take all of that and miniaturize it down to something that you put on your belt or on a bag that hangs from your wheelchair,” he said, “then it’s less invasive and a lot more normal to your everyday life.”
“It’s a huge, huge feat to be able to accomplish this,” he said, “but in order for it to get to the speed where people can take advantage of it in their everyday lives, we need a lot more people working on this together.”