April 2016

Ian Burkhart, a 24-year-old paralyzed from the chest down, has his dad or stepmom leave him a couple drinks with straws on his desk in the morning before they leave. If he gets thirsty for something else, he has to wait for help.

He can move his arms and shoulders some, but not his hands, so he uses his pinkie knuckles to peck at the computer keyboard and to scroll his phone.

But that changes for a few hours each week when he gets to a research lab at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Six years after he broke his neck diving into a wave off the North Carolina coast, Burkhart is testing breakthrough technology that lets him pour the contents of a bottle, slide a credit card, pick up a spoon and hold a phone to his ear, just by thinking about it.

How does he do it? Picture a wired connection from a microchip in his brain that links to a sleeve of electrodes that stimulate muscles in his right arm.

It’s hacking the brain to bypass the injured spinal cord.


Nonprofit research firm Battelle (Ohio State’s neighbor) developed the technology, called NeuroLife, and teamed with physicians and neuroscientists from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Neurological Institute to develop the research approach and perform the clinical study.

The clinical trial at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center was detailed in a study published online in April in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature.

Burkhart, who lives in Dublin, Ohio, says he felt that science and technology for paralysis would progress in his lifetime, but he didn’t expect this important first step would come so soon.

“The project reinstilled hope that there are things coming down the pipeline that will improve the quality of life for people like me.”

One big feat has been playing a guitar video game.

Pushing buttons in the game to hit the notes at the right time was fun, Burkhart says, but he was more excited about moving his fingers individually after months of intense mental training to target small muscle fibers. That’s what the business student needs to be able to type.

The device holds promise to help people who have had a stroke or other brain or spinal cord injury to become more independent, Ohio State neurosurgeon Ali Rezai, MD, says.

“We’re hoping that this technology will evolve into a wireless system connecting brain signals and thoughts to the outside world to improve the function and quality of life for those with disabilities,” says Dr. Rezai, who directs Ohio State’s Center for Neuromodulation.

And that vision starts with Burkhart.

He was the first person in the world to move a paralyzed limb with the power of thought!

He’s built up weakened muscles in his forearms and perfected difficult motions, such as pinching or setting down an object, since his first hand movement about two years ago with the prototype device.

What makes the technology work?

  • Ohio State’s team brought the technology to life when Dr. Rezai implanted a computer chip smaller than a pea into Burkhart’s brain.
  • An external wired link is plugged into a small port that sticks out just a bit from Burkhart’s head. It carries his thoughts and brain signals through a computer that translates them.
  • The messages travel to the cuff of electrodes on his arm, which send pulses to his muscles that move his wrist and hand.

This all happens in a fraction of second, so his movements are in real time.

The future of paralysis treatment

Burkhart is the first of five potential participants in the study. A second person is scheduled to start the trials this summer.

Jerry Mysiw, MD, who designed the clinical trials with Dr. Rezai, says the team’s goal is to help people regain control over their bodies.

“In the 30 years I’ve been in this field, this is the first time we’ve been able to offer realistic hope to people who have very challenging lives,” says Dr. Mysiw, chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Wexner Medical Center.

The team expects the technology to become a portable system, according to Dr. Rezai, a co-author of the study in Nature.

“One of our major goals is to make this readily available to be used by patients at home,” he explains.

For Burkhart, getting elective brain surgery and spending many hours volunteering for the trial felt like his obligation to try to get back even the smallest amount of independence for people with paralysis, he says.

He thinks about being able to brush his teeth without help or to eat with a fork that’s not strapped to his hand.

“I could just do things as I want to do them instead of planning life out like a chess match.”

On our page about our neurological innovations, you’ll see a video of Burkhart moving his hand that the team presented at the 2016 South by Southwest Interactive festival.


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