Quadriplegic Moves Hand by Thinking About It

Ian Burkhart broke his neck while swimming in 2010

By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff

Posted Jun 25, 2014 9:10 AM CDT

(Newser) – It is, as the Washington Post writes, "science fiction come true": A 23-year-old quadriplegic managed to move his right hand last Wednesday, a hand that he'd had no power over since he broke his neck after diving into a sandbar in the Atlantic Ocean in 2010. Since then, Ian Burkhart has been living in his father and stepmother's Columbus, Ohio-area basement, where he's able to feed himself using his shoulders and elbows, which he still has some use of—after a family member affixes a fork to his powerless hand. In a bid to ease such reliance, in April Burkhart let doctors open his skull, implant a chip in his brain's motor cortex, and run a wire from it to a small metal cylinder that was fastened to his bone using screws.

Then came the practice: Roughly every other day since then he's worked with scientists from Battelle, a nonprofit research group, observing a digital hand moving across a screen and thinking hard about imitating the motion. Battelle's technology, dubbed Neurobridge, allows a brain signal to bypass Burkhart's injured spinal cord and, in a tenth of a second, go directly to an electrode-packed sleeve on his arm, CNET explains. Last week came the big try: A gray computer cord was connected to the metal cylinder, his right forearm was encircled that sleeve, and Burkhart imagined opening and closing his hand—a movement that could one day allow him to feed himself. The hand opened (not fully), then closed, an action he repeated over and over. And then he managed to grab and hold a spoon ... for a moment. (Last year, scientists scored a breakthrough with paralyzed rats.)

A screenshot from a video taken by Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
A screenshot from a video taken by Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.   (YouTube screenshot)
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See Ian Burkhart move his hand.   (YouTube)

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