25 June 2014

Virtual Spinal Cord

The paralyzed returned the ability to control the hand with the power of thought

Copper newsA paralyzed American became the first patient in the world to gain the ability to move his hand and control the fingers of his own hand with the power of thought after a microchip no larger than a pea was implanted in his brain, according to Medicalexpress (Chip implanted in brain reads thoughts, activates sleeve to move paralyzed hand).

Until now, such an effect has been achieved only with the control of bionic limbs.

23-year–old Ian Burkhart, who was paralyzed four years ago after suffering a spinal cord injury while diving, became the first of supposedly five participants in clinical trials of Neurobridge, a technology developed by specialists from the American non-profit research company Battelle in partnership with neurologists and neurosurgeons from the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University.

Neurobridge provides a direct neural connection between the brain and muscles bypassing the damaged area of the spinal cord. "By analogy with coronary bypass surgery, where blood is pumped bypassing the narrowed lumen of the artery, we ensure the passage of electrical impulses from the brain bypassing the injury directly into the muscles, actually creating a virtual spinal cord," explained lead developer Chad Bouton.

On April 22, during a three-hour operation, a sensory microchip less than 4 millimeters wide with 96 electrodes reading electrical impulses and transmitting them through a port to a computer was implanted into the motor cortex of Barkhart's brain, exactly in the area responsible for controlling his right hand. There, the signals sent by the brain are decoded, interpreted accordingly and fed to an electrode pad attached to Barkhart's forearm, forcing them to stimulate the muscles of the paralyzed arm in the right way and providing exactly the hand movements that the patient thought of. In total, the whole process – from thought to movement – takes a tenth of a second.

Barkhart had to train the atrophied muscles of his arm with an electrode pad for several months so that they would respond better to electrical stimulation, and learn to concentrate thoughts to control the "virtual spinal cord", while a team of specialists selected the right sequence of stimulating electrodes for more functional support of the movement of the hand and fingers. For example, it turned out that Barkhart uses different brain impulses and muscle groups to turn the hand, squeeze it into a fist or grab an object with his fingers.

During the first official test of the technology, held last week,  Barkhart was able to open his fingers and squeeze them into a fist, as well as take a teaspoon with them. The developers are confident that Neurobridge will find wide application in clinical practice in the future to help patients with various brain and spinal cord injuries.

The plot of the SkyNews TV channel dedicated to the Neurobridge trials:

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