Brain-decoding chip, algorithms give quadriplegic movement again

With chip implanted in his brain, a 23-year-old quadriplegic moves his fingers and hand

Thanks to a computer chip, algorithms and nearly 10 years of research, a 23-year-old quadriplegic moved his fingers and hand with the power of his own thoughts.

"I never dreamed I would ever be able to do that again," said Ian Burkhart, of Dublin, Ohio. Burkhart, who was injured in a 2010 diving accident, is the first patient to use Neurobridge, an electronic neural bypass system developed at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

The system, which is aimed at spinal cord injuries, is designed to reconnect the brain directly to muscles, allowing voluntary and functional control of a paralyzed limb.

The technology may one day give self-propelled movement back to patients affected by brain and spinal cord injuries.

Burkhart, according to the university, is the first of five potential participants in a clinical study. He has begun a six-month clinical trial that required a three-hour surgery to implant a chip into his brain.

"It's much like a heart bypass, but instead of bypassing blood, we're actually bypassing electrical signals," said Chad Bouton, research leader on the project, in a statement. "We're taking those signals from the brain, going around the injury, and actually going directly to the muscles."

In a laboratory at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, a 23-year-old quadriplegic man moved his paralyzed hand with his own thoughts. (Video: Ohio State)

The internally funded project, which has been in the works for nearly a decade, uses algorithms constructed to learn and decode the user's brain activity, along with a muscle stimulation sleeve that translates neural impulses from the brain and transmits new signals to the paralyzed limb, the university reported.

A chip, smaller than a pea, also needs to be implanted on the motor cortex of the patient's brain. The chip is designed to interpret the user's brain signals and send them to a computer, which then recodes them and sends them along to the stimulation sleeve. The sleeve then stimulates the exact muscles needed to enact a movement.

The university reported that Burkhart's thoughts are translated into movement within a tenth of a second.

Burkhart said he's hopeful that the technology will give him more control over his body and his life.

"Initially, it piqued my interest because I like science, and it's pretty interesting," Burkhart said in a statement. "I've realized, 'You know what? This is the way it is. You're going to have to make the best out of it.' You can sit and complain about it, but that's not going to help you at all. So, you might as well work hard, do what you can and keep going on with life."

The work at Ohio State is another step in efforts to use technology to help those suffering from paralysis and other debilitating illnesses.

Robotic exoskeletons have helped people suffering from paralysis walk again. The U.S. military last month was due to begin testing a new exoskeleton, or Iron Man-like suit, designed to make soldiers stronger, give them real-time battlefield information, monitor their vital signs and even stop their bleeding.

And more than six years ago, a University of Arizona researcher who had successfully connected a moth's brain to a robot predicted that by 2017 or 2022, "hybrid" computers will be used that run a combination of technology and living organic tissue.

"The line between robots and people will be blurred with smart prosthetics and implanted components," said Russ Tedrake, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, in a recent interview. "It won't be robots and people but robot people... If you were in distress and given the choice for a longer, more comfortable life by simply replacing your spleen with a machine that could do the same job, wouldn't you take it?"

This article, Brain-decoding chip, algorithms give quadriplegic movement again, was originally published at

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is

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