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Battelle Memorial Institute

Electronic neuro-bypass enables paralyzed man to move fingers

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Ian Burkhart

Ian Burkhart's life has taken some unexpected turns.

The 2009 Dublin Jerome High School graduate didn't expect to be using a wheelchair at the age of 19 after a 2010 diving accident in the Outer Banks.

He also didn't expect to be the first man in the world to move his hand with the power of his thoughts thanks to new Neurobridge technology developed at Battelle Memorial Institute, headquartered in Columbus.

"I got pretty lucky," Burkhart said of his spot in the clinical testing.

"I was approached by my doctors (at Ohio State University) I'd seen for some other things. I fit the criteria."

A spot in the testing process put a microchip in Burkhart's brain that works to decode algorithms from the brain and create a bypass around the spinal cord to his arm and a sleeve that provides electrical stimulation to make muscles move.

"In layman's terms, what we're doing is creating an electronic neuro-bypass or electronic spinal cord to take signals from the brain to go around Ian's injury and take the signals to the muscles," said Chad Bouton, a Battelle researcher.

"We have to do some processing and make it a language the muscles understand," Bouton said.

The technology has been in development at Battelle for almost 10 years. Last month marked the first time it was seen in action as Burkhart opened and closed his fingers and hand at the Ohio State Wexner Center.

"We believe this is the very first time that this has been done, in terms of having an implant in the brain and decoding those signals and bridging around the spinal cord," Bouton said.

"We're taking signals from the brain with the implant and reprocessing those signals so someone can move again," he said.

"We've seen chips in the brain, robot wheelchairs (and) robotics arms, but we don't believe anyone has linked a chip and the brain directly to the muscles and mimicked the human spinal cord."

While being involved in a brand new technology might seem exciting, it's not without risk.

Burkhart gave some serious thought to joining the test before going under the knife to have a microchip implanted in his brain in April.

"Certainly there is some risk involved; it's elective brain surgery," Burkhart said.

"It's a large time commitment and I did think about it for a long time, but I knew it was something I wanted to do."

Despite his taxing schedule of classes at OSU and acting as assistant coach for the Jerome High School boy's lacrosse team, Burkhart went ahead with the test because it's what he would want someone else to do to help him.

"We talked to Ian about this before surgery and before this all started," Bouton said.

"He knows that this is temporary and he knows the study is finite," he said.

"He's so selfless that he is still willing to sign up for this study and be the first not for himself, but for others in the future," Bouton said.

"That's what's so amazing."

Burkhart's future with the study will include working on developing fine motor skills such as moving individual fingers and perhaps even brushing his teeth.

"You have to really, really concentrate on it," Burkhart said.

"There's no sensation in my hands and no tactile sense of holding something, so that's difficult. But it (moving his hand) was a great feeling, that's for sure."

Long-term possibilities for the technology could help stroke victims with recovery and aid the paralyzed in normal tasks, Bouton said.

"We're in the early stages of developing the technology, but we believe -- it's hard to predict when -- we could develop this into a form or system that could be used by people" in everyday life, Bouton said. "That's the long-term goal."

Burkhart's own goal isn't far off.

"My goal is to prove this type of technology can work and raise more awareness for research," he said.

"There's potential for people with neurological disorders to use their hands."

"We have to try new things and push the technology and field forward so we can open up doors for future solutions to these kinds of problems," Bouton said.

"None of this would be possible at all without brave people like Ian. He's been an incredible study participant.

"That's what it takes to move science and medicine forward."

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