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Paralysed man moves hand using ‘Thought Control’

Neuralprosthetics, commonly known as ‘Thought Control’ is when a microchip is implanted into the brain of a patient with a spinal injuries. The chip bypasses the damaged spinal cord and allows the patient with the spinal cord injury to ‘think’ the thoughts he wants his limbs to undertake. By simply thinking he wants to move his hand, he is able to do so.

Scientists in Ohio, America first released this breakthrough in September 2015. The first man to benefit from this is 24 year old Ian Burkhart who became paralysed from his neck down 6 years ago. Since then, the scientists have been providing updates on how Mr Burkhart, has been benefitting from this treatment.

In September 2015 Mr Burkhart was only able to move his hands slightly. Six months on he is now able to carry out daily functions which for many tetraplegics would greatly enhance their quality of life.

Whilst the initial movement was met with cautious optimism in the spinal cord community, the continued improvement and crucially the ability to allow someone to carry out daily activities for themselves, provides an element of hope for the future. It is still nowhere near a quick or full repair of the spinal cord, but it would give tetraplegics in particular, a sense of independence again if they can move their hands and do some tasks for themselves.

Mr Burkhart can carry out the following sophisticated movements with his hands:

  • Pick up a spoon,
  • Pick up and hold a phone to his ear,
  • Grasp a bottle, pour its contents into a jar and use a stick to stir the contents of the jar.

How does the microchip work exactly?

The work on this project began more than 4 years ago and was a colla-boration between Ohio State Neurological Institute and company called Battelle.

In April 2014, the scientists placed a small implant in the motor cortex of a 24-year-old Ian Burkhart. In 2010 whilst on holiday with his family, Mr Burkhart sustained a spinal cord injury at C5 level rendering him qua-driplegic (paralysis of the arms and legs).

The surgery to place the implant took three hours and the implanted computer chip was smaller than a pea.

Once this was done, the scientists had to decipher the neuro-signals recorded in the brain of Mr Burkhart that are specifically responsible for various hand movements. In order to do this, Mr Burkhart was shown images of different types of hand movement which would trigger specific neural activity in his brain. This could then be decoded to allow the scientist to control the activation of hand muscles.

Mr Burkhart has a connector secured to his skull which connects the im-plant with a computer system decoding the signals from the brain. The computer is then connected to another device (which looks like a sleeve) which in turn stimulates the muscles that control his arm and hand.

Hand movements regained

Mr Burkhart had to re-learn how to think about specific hand movements which was not easy given that he had not been able to use his hands for a number of years since his spinal cord injury. At the same time the computer system is also adapting and learning how to interpret the signals from the patient’s brain and to control the hand movements.

This was clearly a lengthy learning process and Mr Burkhart attended up to three sessions weekly for 15 months after implantation to use this electronic ‘neural bypass’ system. However this hard work has clearly paid off.

Initially, Mr Burkhart was able to close and open his hand with the help of this device simply by thinking about it. Now, he can perform more so-phisticated movements with his hands and fingers such as picking up a spoon, picking up and holding a phone to his ear, grasping a bottle, pouring its contents into a jar and using a stick to stir the contents of the jar. Mr Burkhart was unable to perform these tasks before. He said that thanks to this device he is able to be more independent in his daily life and do things he was not able to do.

What does this mean for the future and for the current spinal cord injury community?

The scientists behind this study hope to develop this technology further by using a wireless system to pass the signals from the brain directly to the sleeve that stimulates the muscles that control his arm and hand. This would enable patients to use it at home to increase their indepen-dence with daily tasks.

The scientists also believe that this device can in the future help patients affected by stroke or traumatic brain injury.

Whilst it is likely to take some time to become widely available, this is likely to improve the quality of life for many of our clients who suffer from high level spinal cord injury.

The Spinal Injuries Association supports people with spinal cord injuries in-cluding those suffering from tetraplegia who will find this study of par-ticular interest as it may improve their hand function. It is, however, hoped that this technology may in future be developed to help regain function in the lower limbs.

Alex Dabek is Head of the the Spinal Injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp.  If you or a loved one feel you may have suffered an injury as a result of an accident or someone else’s negligence or you are concerned about the treatment you have received, contact Alex free of charge and in confidence on 020 7288 4812 or at alexdabek@boltburdonkemp.co.uk.  Alternatively, complete this form and one of the solicitors in the Spinal Injury team will contact you.  Find out more about the Spinal Injury Team.

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