‘It’s kind of like it was before I had my injury.”
Ian Burkhart is one of 250,000 Americans with spinal cord injuries. Four years ago he was hurt in a swimming accident that left him paralyzed below the shoulders, but a new technology developed by the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York has given him the ability to move his hands and wrists again. It’s called neural bypass and it may hold the key to helping people with spinal cord injuries regain their movement.
At the onset of the study, researchers implanted an array of electrodes in the left primary motor cortex in Burkhart’s brain. The implant was then connected to wires that bypassed his damaged nerve pathways and connected directly to muscles in his hand, wrists and fingers. After 15 months, Burkhart learned how to send the proper signals to specific muscle groups and was able to perform the complex task of pouring water into a bottle into and then stirring it.
“The first time I was able to move my hand it was a big shock,” Burkhart says. “It was something that I hadn’t moved in about three and a half years at that point. And now it’s something that’s so fluid it’s kind of like it was before I had my injury.” He then learned how to swipe a credit card and play the video game Guitar Hero. “Our goal was to use this technology so that these patients like Ian can be more in charge of their lives and can be more independent,” Ali Rezai, one of the researchers at Feinstein Institute, said in a statement. “This really provides hope, we believe, for many patients in the future.”
Although the results of the tests are promising, researchers are emphasizing that neural bypass devices cannot restore feeling. Also, because the implants are invasive, they’re will not be recommended for paraplegics in poor health. But researchers are hopeful the technology can be developed into a wireless system that will help patients move without the cumbersome wires.