When Ian Burkhart broke his neck diving into a wave in 2010, he had no idea that about four years later, he would make history as the first quadriplegic to regain control of his limbs using his own thoughts.
At the time, the devastated 19-year-old knew only that an experimental study at nearby Ohio State University Wexner Medical School offered hope. Burkhart’s spinal injury had severed the communication pathway between the motor cortex in his brain and the muscles in his limbs, but this study proposed a detour.
Doctors had Burkhart think about moving his hand while researchers took fMRI scans to light up key brain areas. Based on those coordinates, in April 2014, Ali Rezai, MD, director of Ohio State’s Center for Neuromodulation, placed a microchip smaller than a pea in the motor cortex, which controls the hand. The chip was connected via a computer to an electrode-studded sleeve on Burkhart’s arm that stimulated his muscles. Burkhart’s thoughts now had a new bypass to his hand.
Two months later, Dr. Rezai was standing behind his patient in a lab crowded with cameras, physicians, engineers, and family, all eyes on Burkhart’s right hand. When it moved for the first time, Burkhart made history. “It was a surreal moment,” Dr. Rezai remembers. “The whole team was amazed, but then we said, ‘OK, the work is just beginning. He’s got to be able to pick up a cup of coffee.’”
In the years since, subject and software have been learning from each other. “The machine is continuously improving its algorithms, and Ian is able to think about things with more fluidity,” says Dr. Rezai. “It’s phenomenal seeing the brain and computer coming together.”
Burkhart is now able to swipe a credit card and play Guitar Hero.