A man paralysed in a driving accident six years ago has regained the use of his fingers and hand in a clinical trial.
The new system allows him to grasp and swipe a credit card and also play a guitar video game with instructions from his brain translated through a prototype medical system.
NeuroLife, the name of the device, was invented at Battelle, which teamed up with physicians and neuroscientists from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center for further development.
A tiny computer chip, smaller than a pea, was implanted on to the motor cortex of the brain of Ian Burkhart, a 24-year-old quadriplegic from Dublin, Ohio.
This electronic neural bypass for spinal cord injuries reconnects the brain directly to muscles, allowing voluntary and functional control of a paralyzed limb by using his thoughts.
The device interprets thoughts and brain signals, then bypasses his injured spinal cord and connects directly to a sleeve that stimulates the muscles that control his arm and hand.
"We're showing for the first time that a quadriplegic patient is able to improve his level of motor function and hand movements," said Dr. Ali Rezai, a co-author of the study.
Although the neural bypass technology was first demonstrated in June 2014, when Buckhart was able to open and close his hand simply by thinking about it, he can now perform more sophisticated movements with his hands and fingers, such as picking up a spoon or picking up and holding a phone to his ear.
"It's amazing to see what he's accomplished," said Nick Annetta, electrical engineering lead for Battelle's team on the project. "Ian can grasp a bottle, pour the contents of the bottle into a jar and put the bottle back down. Then he takes a stir bar, grips that and then stirs the contents of the jar that he just poured and puts it back down. He's controlling it every step of the way."
The neural bypass technology combines algorithms that learn and decode the 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.
This method allows the system to ‘learn’ from the user to translate their unique brainwaves into their required actions.
The Battelle scientists have been working on the technology for more than a decade. As part of its development, they recorded neural impulses from an electrode array implanted in a paralyzed person's brain. They used that recorded data to illustrate the device's effect on the patient and prove the concept.
"We're hoping that this technology will evolve into a wireless system connecting brain signals and thoughts to the outside world to improve the function and quality of life for those with disabilities," Rezai said.
"One of our major goals is to make this readily available to be used by patients at home."
Last year, researchers demonstrated a similar system that allowed a paralysed man to regain the use of his legs courtesy of a computer interface that translates brain signals into leg movements.