Ian Burkhart faces the drama of being a young man with quadriplegia. There are about five years, he seriously injured his neck during a dive on a beach in North Carolina, in the United States, which did stop stirring arms and legs. But there is hope: a chip implanted in the brain can cause the man to recover at least part of the movement. In a recent experiment, he managed to move one hand.
The chip is only part of the extensive work of a team of researchers from Ohio State University. The project is essentially to create a bypass, ie a “detour” that restores nerve connections interrupted by injuries.
It’s an idea that fits well for Burkhart, now 24 years old. The spinal cord injury, more precisely in the vertebra C5 prevents the brain it can direct the body to move, contract muscles and so on. What does the bypass is then overcome this limitation from another method of communication.
Speaking so, it seems easy. But to get to this stage, were months of dedication and hard work.
To begin, in April 2014, Burkhart faced a delicate surgery three hours to placing a tiny implant in his brain – the chip mentioned at the beginning of the text. In his skull, the researchers have set a device receiving the implant signals and sends them to a computer.
For 15 months Burkhart went through a training of three weekly sessions in which, with the help of pictures, he had to think about moving your hand. In the same period, he exercises to strengthen the muscles of the right arm.
It fell then to the computer to analyze the signals received during this training to “decipher” the orders that the brain sends to move your hands. After that, came the most critical phase: to transform this procedure in real movements.
For this, the researchers linked the computer to a neuromuscular stimulation device.This device contains a number of tapes with electrodes which, once fixed on the arm, send signals to the muscles of the hand.
In short, the scheme is this: Burkhart think the hand movements, the computer interprets the corresponding signals and sends them to the stimulation device that finally makes the hand move as expected.
To some extent, the method is similar to the robotic prostheses in which the user thinks of certain types of movements and members receive orders to play them. But here, the engine sends the orders to the neuromuscular system’s own, hence the importance of strengthening exercises. If it works? Yes! See for yourself:
This system already allows Burkhart perform at least six types of movements with the hand and wrist. He still can not make complex gestures, it is true, but can now open and close the hand, hold small objects (such as a pencil or a spoon) placed between his fingers, turning a mug and push buttons, for example.
Currently, technology has 90% accuracy in the interpretation of the movements. But, as should be clear to you, this is only the initial stage. The aim of the scientists is to increase the variety of hand movements and, of course, make the mechanism work in other parts of the body.
In a more advanced stage – and more advanced – you can even think about the project helping a person to walk again, but return at least part of the movement who has quadriplegia already show how a quantum leap, “if we can help bring even if a little independence to someone is something extraordinary, “says Burkhart.
According to neurosurgeon Ali Rezai, one responsible for research, “one of the main goals is to make patients can use it at home,” that is, without relying on laboratory apparatus. To this end, the researcher expected, for example, that the system use wireless communications to connect the implant to the muscle groups brain to be stimulated.
With the success of the tests made with Ian Burkhart, researchers now evaluate the technique with four other people who also lost movement from the neck down. Everyone should go through similar processes, including by several months of training.
Considering all the necessary tests and improvements, it will take several years before the technique could eventually become viable. Well, you can not expect great and immediate results in a project that is only the beginning, right? This is a start, but a start quite promising. For now, that’s what matters.