New bypassing device allows paralyzed patients to move limbs
Neurobridge provides hope for those with spinal cord injuries. ©Photo courtesy of Ohio University Medical Center and Battela
History was made when 23-year-old Ian Burkhart from Dublin, Ohio, recently became the first quadriplegic to move his arm via his thoughts thanks to a new device that bridges the gap between the brain and the muscle, bypassing the spinal cord altogether.
Researchers from the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Battelle Memorial Institute, a charitable trust that applies science and technology solutions, have completed their first human clinical test of Neurobridge, a device that permits paralyzed individuals voluntary and functional use of their limbs.
The device abbreviates the path to muscle control directly from brain cells in a process called electric neural bypass.
"It's much like a heart bypass, but instead of bypassing blood, we're actually bypassing electrical signals," says Battelle research leader Chad Bouton. "We're taking those signals from the brain, going around the injury, and actually going directly to the muscles."
Neural impulses from the brain are transmitted to the muscle by means of a high-definition sleeve worn by the user. The Neurobridge anticipates and carries out the user's desire for a given movement using algorithms to decode brain activity.
It took nearly a decade of internationally funded research to develop the algorithms, software and sleeve before the device was ready for Burkhart.
The process began with a three-hour surgery in which Ohio State neuroscience researcher and clinician Dr. Ali Rezai implanted a tiny chip on the motor cortex lobe of Burkhart's brain.
It's the chip, according to researchers, that interprets brain signals and sends them to a software device and finally to the sleeve, where they translate to limb movement.
"The surgery required the precise implantation of the micro-chip sensor in the area of Ian's brain that controls his arm and hand movements," says Dr. Rezai.
For now, the device only employs arm movement, but Battelle has developed a non-invasive neurostimulator that permits the movement of individual fingers.
This device connects to software that researchers call a "virtual spinal cord" to coordinate the different signals required for more complex motions such as grasping objects.
In advance of testing the product, Burkhart worked for months to rehabilitate the atrophied muscles in his arms.
"It's definitely great for me to be as young as I am when I was injured because the advancements in science and technology are growing rapidly and they're only going to continue to increase," he says.
Scientists worked to arrange electrodes in the correct sequence to afford Burkhart a maximum of functionality.
"I've been doing rehabilitation for a lot of years, and this is a tremendous stride forward in what we can offer these people," says Dr. Jerry Mysiw, chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Ohio State. "Now we're examining human-machine interfaces and interactions, and how that type of technology can help."