Swipe a credit card, pick up a spoon, pour a drink and stir it - these are the things that a paralyzed man can now do, thanks to a computer plugged in to his brain. Specialized software decodes his thoughts and uses them to stimulate muscles in his right arm to control his hand and fingers.
Ian Burkhart, a 24-year-old quadriplegic man from Dublin, OH, was paralyzed 6 years ago in a diving accident. Today, he can grasp and manipulate objects and even move his fingers individually to play a guitar video game.
A paper describing the prototype neural bypass system, a collaboration between Ohio State University and Battelle Memorial Institute, both in Columbus, OH, is published in the journal Nature.
The electronic device bypasses the spinal cord and reconnects the brain directly to muscles, so the patient can use thoughts and brain signals to directly control a paralyzed limb.
Co-author Dr. Ali Rezai, a neurosurgeon at Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center, says:
"We're showing for the first time that a quadriplegic patient is able to improve his level of motor function and hand movements."
Dr. Rezai implanted a computer chip smaller than a pea on to the motor cortex of Burkhart's brain 2 years ago. Within a few months, he was able to open and close his hand.
Now, he can control his hands and fingers to pick up objects and hold a phone to his ear - showing an increase in ability that can make a significant difference to his quality of life.
Six different wrist and hand movements
The system is the product of over 10 years of work. It combines software that learns and decodes brain activity with a high-definition muscle stimulation sleeve that transmits new signals to the paralyzed limb.
Burkhart also worked for months using the electrode sleeve to stimulate his forearm to rebuild his atrophied muscles so they could respond to the signals.
In their paper, the authors describe how Burkhart can now use the system to control six different wrist and hand movements. For example, he uses different brain signals and muscles to rotate his hand, make a fist, or pinch his fingers together to pick up an object.
Burkhart is the first of a potential five participants taking part in a federally approved clinical study of the system. A second patient is due to start in the summer.
"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. One of our major goals is to make this readily available to be used by patients at home."
The following ABC News video summarizes how the technology works and how Burkhart has learned to use it:
Computers are not the only technology ushering in a new era of treatments for the reversal of paralysis. In 2014, Medical News Today learned how a paralyzed man from Poland is regaining the use of his legs after surgeons transplanted nose cells to repair his severed spinal cord.