Dear Commons Community,
Yesterday, doctors reported that they had developed and tested microchip technology that allowed a paralyzed man to regain control over his right hand and fingers. The technology transmits the individual’s thoughts directly to his hand muscles and bypasses his previous spinal injury. The report, published by the journal Nature, is the first account of limb reanimation, as it is known, in a person with quadriplegia. As reported:
“Five years ago, a college freshman named Ian Burkhart dived into a wave at a beach off the Outer Banks in North Carolina and, in a freakish accident, broke his neck on the sandy floor, permanently losing the feeling in his hands and legs…
Doctors implanted a chip in Mr. Burkhart’s brain two years ago. Seated in a lab with the implant connected through a computer to a sleeve on his arm, he was able to learn by repetition and arduous practice to focus his thoughts to make his hand pour from a bottle, and to pick up a straw and stir. He was even able to play a guitar video game.
“It’s crazy because I had lost sensation in my hands, and I had to watch my hand to know whether I was squeezing or extending the fingers,” Mr. Burkhart, a business student who lives in Dublin, Ohio, said in an interview. His injury had left him paralyzed from the chest down; he still has some movement in his shoulders and biceps.
The new technology is not a cure for paralysis. Mr. Burkhart could use his hand only when connected to computers in the lab, and the researchers said there was much work to do before the system could provide significant mobile independence.
But the field of neural engineering is advancing quickly. Using brain implants, scientists can decode brain signals and match them to specific movements. Previously, people have learned to guide a cursor on a screen with their thoughts, monkeys have learned to skillfully use a robotic arm through neural signals and scientists have taught monkeys who were partly paralyzed to use an arm with a bypass system. This new study demonstrates that the bypass approach can restore critical skills to limbs no longer directly connected to the brain.
“It’s quite impressive what they’ve shown, this sequence of movements to pick up and pour something and pick up a stirrer — it’s an advance toward a goal we all have, to provide as much independence to these patients as possible,” said Rajesh Rao, the director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering at the University of Washington.”
Quite a feat. Over the next ten or so years, we will see many more man-machine technologies that improve, extend, or enable brain function.