Paralyzed Man Moves His Hand with His Mind

Tuesday, 24 June 2014 - 9:59AM
Medical Tech
Neuroscience
Tuesday, 24 June 2014 - 9:59AM
Paralyzed Man Moves His Hand with His Mind

In 2010, Ian Burkhart broke his neck in a diving accident and lost the use of his hands and legs. Last Wednesday, Burkhart moved his hand for the first time since his accident, using only the power of his mind (with the help of some electrodes and an algorithm).

 

[Credit: MediaSource TV]

 

Until now, Burkhart needed assistance for everything, from eating to taking a shower, the latter of which often took hours. "I'd say that the thing I miss most is just being independent," Burkhart said in April. "You have to rely on other people so much. It would really be nice to just do something as simple as open up a water bottle myself."

 

The next day, Burkhart took a radical step towards that independence by choosing to undergo elective brain surgery. The doctors implanted a chip into his brain, connected by a similar mechanism to a Velcro strip. They held the chip in place by attaching a small metal cylinder to his skull with screws and running a wire between the cylinder and the chip. Theoretically, the chip was supposed to receive his brain signals, then the algorithm would translate his thoughts into movement and the film strips on his arm would stimulate the muscles to move.

 

Luke Skywalker's robotic hand in The Empire Strikes Back:

 

[Credit: 20th Century Fox]

 

To prepare Burkhart for moving his hand, researchers ran many "test runs" with an animated hand. They would plug his brain into a computer monitor three times a week (when he's plugged in, he looks like he's in The Matrix) and show him a moving animated hand. He would concentrate on the idea of his hand moving in the same way. The computer would then read his thoughts (!) and show him another animated hand, and he would attempt to move that hand on the screen using his thoughts. These drills not only prepared Burkhart, but also helped the computer learn the sequence and become more efficient.

 

Originally, they only planned for Burkhart to attempt to move one finger during the first attempt, but he performed so well in drills that they became more ambitious. On the first try, he was able to curl his hand into a fist and open it again. He also trilled his fingers and picked up a spoon for several seconds.

 

Although Burkhart will still not be able to move his limbs when he is not plugged into the computer, it is a huge step towards gaining movement in his limbs. The researchers are now discussing the possibility of making the technology mobile, so he and other paraplegics would be able to use it at home. Specifically, they spoke of headbands that performed the function of the chip and cellphones that could carry out the algorithm. Even though this technology is still futuristic, this remarkable advancement has surely ushered in a new wave of bionic technology.

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