COLUMBUS, Ohio — A scientific breakthrough has given a man in Ohio the chance to reclaim a major part of his life after a devastating injury.
Ian Burkhart suffered a severe spinal cord injury in 2010 while on vacation from Ohio University. He dove into a wave and struck an unseen sandbar that paralyzed him instantly. Since 2014, researchers at the nonprofit, Battelle, and the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center have been working on new technologies to help restore the use of Burkhart’s right arm.
In a new report, published in the journal Cell, the researchers have succeeded in connecting neural signals between Burkhart’s brain and arm. The breakthrough system is able to harness signals that are usually too small to perceive, enhances them, and sends them to the patient.
“We’re taking subperceptual touch events and boosting them into conscious perception,” Battelle research scientist Patrick Ganzer said in a statement. “It was a big eureka moment when we first restored the participant’s sense of touch.”
Using Technology To Talk To The Brain
The brain-computer interface (BCI) system implants a small computer chip in the brain and places a series of electrodes on the patient’s skin. After the connection is made to Burkhart’s arm, wires route the movement signals from his brain straight to the muscles — avoiding the damage caused by the 28-year-old’s spinal injury.
Thanks to the BCI, researchers say Burkhart has enough control over his arm now to lift a cup, swipe a credit card, or even play video games like Guitar Hero. Ganzer says that patients who have suffered a “clinically complete” spinal cord injury still have a few remnants of nerve fiber that survive the injury. The BCI helps the body boost the signals from those remaining fibers and gets the to brain respond to them.
The Ohio researchers add that their system works very much like how a cell phone or video game controller lets the user know something is going on. Using “haptic feedback,” a vibration or other force a machine produces to get a user’s attention, the BCI helps the touch signals coming from the patient’s skin to reach the brain as understandable haptic feedback.
Going Beyond A Simple Touch
The success with Ian Burkhart have also led to several improvements in the BCI system. The researchers say the 28-year-old has been able to detect an object by touch alone, without having to see it. He’s also been able to experience movement and the sense of touch at the same time and can sense how much pressure to apply to an object he’s holding — depending on if it’s light or heavy.
“It has been amazing to see the possibilities of sensory information coming from a device that was originally created to only allow me to control my hand in a one-way direction,” Burkhart explained.
The scientists are now hoping to design a BCI that can be worn like a sleeve at home and can be easily taken on or off.