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Bypassing the Spinal Cord: A New Device to Help the Paralyzed Move

nerobridgeWith the World Cup finishing up this past Sunday, you may have remembered that the festivities got “kicked off” by a paraplegic man using a robotic exoskeleton to help him move. This was all thanks to the great work of the Walk Again Project, an organization we covered back in January.

As if this great organization and technology weren’t already incredible news, there’s a new project out of The Ohio State University that may get even more people walking again.

For the first time ever, Ian Burkhart, a 23-year-old quadriplegic from Dublin, Ohio, can move his fingers and hand with his own thoughts. It’s all thanks to a new process called Neurobridge, an electronic neural bypass for spinal cord injuries that reconnects the brain directly to muscles, allowing voluntary and functional control of paralyzed limbs. Check out this video of Ian moving his paralyzed hand for the first time with his own thoughts!

Neurobridge is a collaboration with The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Battelle, a scientific research and innovation institute based in Ohio. The technology combines a small implant into the user’s brain that can learn and decode that user’s brain activity and a high-definition muscle stimulation sleeve that translates neural impulses from the brain and transmits new signals to the paralyzed limb. “It’s much like a heart bypass,” says Chad Bouton, research leader at Battelle. “But instead of bypassing blood, we’re actually bypassing electrical signals.”

The research and technology for this project has been a long time in the making. According to ScienceBlog.com, it took nearly a decade to develop the algorithms, software and stimulation sleeve, let alone proving that this concept could actually work.

“Initially, it piqued my interested because I like science, and it’s pretty interesting,” says Burkhart, who underwent a three hour surgery to have a chip smaller than a pea implanted onto the motor cortex of his brain. “I’ve realized, ‘You know what? This is the way it is. You’re going to have to make the best out of it.”

This tiny chip interprets brain signals and sends them to a computer, which recodes and sends them to the high-definition electrode stimulation sleeve that stimulates the proper muscles to execute his desired movements. Within a tenth of a second, Burkhart’s thoughts are translated into action. Dr. Ali Rezai, the researcher and clinician from Ohio State who performed the surgery, says that this technology may one day help patients affected by various brain and spinal cord injuries such as strokes and traumatic brain injury.

Ohio State is already looking to the future and what this new technology could lead to. Maybe even human-machine interfaces and interactions could be only a few years from now. As for Burkhart, he says he’s hopeful for his future.

“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.” Here’s hoping that projects and innovations like these will continue to make great strides in scientific research and technology!

Photo credit: Battelle

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