The goal of restoring movement to victims of paralysis, stroke or brain injury has consumed medical researchers for the past century. In recent years, they've deployed a variety of electronic devices to build a "brain-computer interface" that could harness the power of brainwaves to move muscles or other objects.
President Obama has discussed the science of spinal cord research this week on the Science Channel and Discovery News.
Today, a team of scientists says they made another step toward that goal by recording and translating brain signals to bypass a spinal cord injury and allow a 24-year-old man to move his hand again.
"This study marks the first time that a person living with paralysis has regained movement with recorded signals from the brain," said Chad Bouton, division leader at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y. "It's an important pathway for other patients in the future. For stroke and spinal cord and traumatic brain injury patients, this will help."
Bouton and colleagues from Batelle Research and Ohio State University report in the journal Nature on an experiment in which they implanted a small chip in a section of the brain called the motor cortex of a paraplegic male patient.
The chip recorded some of the electronic brain signals that were activated when the patient, Ian Burkhardt, was shown images of various hand movements -- processing more than three gigabytes of information every minute. It used machine-learning algorithms to translate and relay the signals to a electro-stimulation device worn on the Burkhardt's forearm. This system allowed him to make six different wrist and hand motions, including picking up a bottle and using a stick to stir the contents of a jar.
"The first time I was able to open and close my hand I felt a sense of hope for the future," said Burkhardt, who broke his neck while diving into a wave when he was 19 years old. "Now within last two years since then, things are moving better than I imagined."
Of course, Burkhardt can only move his arm while connected to the device inside the laboratory at Ohio State. And he has a chip implanted into his brain, a chip that the researchers said will degrade over time and could become infected or rejected by the body. Still, Burkhart hopes that he can one day leave the lab with functioning limbs. He says the electro-stimulation device, which is basically a series of wires and electrodes attached to his skin, is easier to wear than a bulky prosthetic.
"You're not going to be looked on as a cyborg with this big thing on your arm," Burkhart said. "It's a lot more natural and you are normal. It's a lot easier to use and fits in with your everyday life."
Ali Rezai, a co-author on the new report and director of Ohio State's Center for Neuroregeneration, said the team wanted something easy to wear.