Four years ago, Ian Burkhart was paralyzed from the chest down during a trip to the beach, after he dived onto a sandbank by mistake. Last week, however, the 23-year-old was able to move the fingers in his hand for the first time — simply using the power of thought. The breakthrough was made possible by the insertion of a microchip in the part of the young man's brain that controls the movement of his arms and hands during an operation in April. Although the power of thought has been used in the past to move artificial limbs, this is the first time that a quadriplegic has been able to move one of his own.
The chip, just 0.15 of an inch wide and with 96 electrodes that can read thoughts, was inserted into a port into the American man's skull, and connected to a computer via a normal computer lead. The electrodes deciphered the messages Burkhart was sending to his brain and the computer translated them into commands which were then sent, via a "sleeve" containing more electrodes around his forearm, which stimulated the muscles in his hand, making them obey the brain's commands. It took Burkhart just one-tenth of a second from thinking about moving his arm to moving it.
The breakthrough was a combined effort between the surgeons and spinal specialists of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, and specialist engineers from Battelle, a non-profit engineering company, who had created something called Neurobridge, which creates a virtual spinal cord using microchip technology. After the operation, Burkhart suffered terrible headaches and wasn't allowed to watch TV or movies as the specialists had forbidden him to concentrate on anything.
"Today was great," said Burkhart. "To be able to open and close my hand and do those complex movements that I haven't been able to do for four years was great. Physically, it was a foreign feeling. Emotionally it was definitely a sense of hope and excitement to know that it's possible." Last month, the FDA approved the first commercial bionic arm. The maker of the device, DEKA, whose founder Dean Kamen also created the Segway, was part-funded by DARPA which is, as we know, big on robotic devices.