Technology transforms thought into movement



In 2010 Ian Burkhart was paralyzed after diving into a wave in shallow water, the accident left him with no use of his hands. About two years ago now scientists in Ohio equipped Burkart with a system that allows him to control his right wrist and hand with his thoughts. The briefing was held by the scientists to publicize the study published in Nature. The study describes in detail the progress made by the patient since he started using the system. It took many many months of practice but now Burkart can perform small tasks like pouring water from a bottle into a glass, grasping small objects without either dropping them or breaking them, he can even swipe a credit card through a card reader without any difficulty. The final clincher for the scientists was that Burkart can now control each of the fingers on his right hand individually.

This whole system came about because of the technology that has been developed that intercepts and decodes electrical signals issued by the brain before they reach the patient's severed or damaged spine. The sciences said they were actually only re-routing these signals around the spinal cord injury and then reinserting them into the muscles of his hand. The system operates using three parts, there are electrodes implanted into Burkart's brain, a computer interface attached to his skull and finally electrical stimulators wrapped around his forearm. The whole system was developed by a team at Ohio State University.
They said the learning curve for the patient is intense because at first even though the patient may be able to pick up something as soon as they either look away from what they're doing or think of something else they would drop it. The scientists also said that the system is actually learning along with the patient, and the system actually learns to take into account the patient's own abilities and problems. What Burkart has managed to achieve is phenomenal and potentially a massive technological breakthrough in the treatment and rehabilitation of spine injury patients. Currently Burkart is the darling of the media which everyone involved is okay with. The spokesperson for the group did however say that Burkart is just one of many paralyzed people using this or similar technology to perform daily tasks using their thoughts alone.
Much of the technology that Burkart relies on is also in use at many other research centers including the Case Western Reserve University, whose chairman of biomedical engineering, Robert Kirsch who is also executive director of the Cleveland functional electrical stimulation Center. “The brain computing interfacing that they did is kind of garden-variety” Kirsch said, “and the electrical stimulation that they've done is really old-fashioned”. Kirsch also said that other groups are obtaining better results using electrical stimulators that are actually implanted into the muscles, instead of being placed on the skin, this approach allows more precise control of the muscles but of course requires much more extensive surgery. The current goal of most of these teams is to allow patient to control more than one set of muscles at the same time, which is vital if you want to do something like walk and you have no spinal connection as a conduit for your thoughts.


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