A paralyzed man from Ohio who got into an accident five years ago has now regained functional control over his right hand, all thanks to a brain implant that may soon restore movement to those with spinal cord injuries.
Dublin-resident Ian Burkhart was 19 when he broke his neck after plunging head first into the ocean. Since then, he was paralyzed from mid-torso but can move his shoulders and his elbows, with effort.
Burkhart then discovered that scientists at Ohio State University were creating a reanimation technology in partnership with nonprofit science company Batelle, and so he decided to volunteer.
In 2014, researchers implanted a pea-sized, Batelle-developed microchip known as NeuroLife in Burkhart's brain.
This incredible neural bypass technology allows the reanimation of Burkhart's right hand, fingers and wrist as it intercepts the man's brain signals and sends them to a computer that decodes them.
The decoding software is routed to a sleeve on Burkhart's hand, stimulating several muscles on his hand and arm.
With the microchip implanted, Burkhart went through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans while simultaneously trying to copy videos of hand movements.
This helped lead scientist Chad Bouton and his colleagues pinpoint the precise area of the brain that controls movement, which is called motor cortex.
They performed surgery to transplant a chip that senses the pattern of rising electrical activity when Burkhart thinks about moving his right hand.
"The first day we hooked it up I was able to get movement, and open and close my hand," said Burkhart.
The 24-year-old Burkhart had been attending training sessions thrice a week. As a result, he can now hold a phone to his ear, stir coffee, pick up a spoon, and even play a guitar-based video game.
Nicholas Annetta, electrical engineering lead for the project, said most quadriplegics are looking for the kind of independence that Burkhart now has on his right hand.
"We've talked to a lot of patients in his condition," Annetta told ABC News. "Of all the things they want back, most say it's not necessarily to be able to walk again but actually to use their hands again."
Incidentally, a bionic spine developed in Australia has helped quadriplegics to walk again via an implantable device.
Meanwhile, despite the remarkable breakthrough of NeuroLife, Annetta said it might take a while before it gets approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a product for people with spinal cord injuries.
Annetta said that since the neural device has yet to be developed, Burkhart can only use it at the clinic for a few hours.
Still, despite the limitation, Burkhart wanted to participate in the study because he felt that it was his obligation to society. He said participating boosted his hope for the future.
"I always did have a certain level of hope," said Burkhart, "but now I know, first-hand, that there are going to be improvements in science and technology that will make my life better."
Burkhart's case is described in a study published in the journal Nature.
Watch a video of Burkhart's journey below.