You wouldn't think that picking up a spoon was a staggering achievement, but that's because you're not Ian Burkhart. He's a quadriplegic and the subject of a lengthy experiment looking for an electronic cure for paralysis. The initial breakthrough took place in 2014 when Burkhart was able to pick up a spoon, and two years later he's now able to swipe a credit card, make a drink and even play Guitar Hero. The breakthrough is the result of ten years worth of research and a partnership between science non-profit Batelle and Ohio State University.
Let's imagine that your body's central nervous system is a network of vacuum tubes, each one connected to a different limb. In a functional brain, an instruction like "pick up that phone" is written in your mind, shoved into a little capsule and then sent into the hand. Burkhart injured his spine in a diving accident six years ago, effectively blocking the tubes and ensuring the instructions can't reach their destination.
Batelle, however, had spent the better part of a decade developing a technology called Neurobridge. The system effectively builds a new vacuum tube out of the body, conveying the information from the brain to the limb and cutting out the middle man. It does this thanks to a chip that's been implanted directly into Burkhart's motor cortex, running to a wire out of his skull and into a sleeve that surrounds his wrist.
In just two years, the team behind the project has gone from the most basic of motor functions to something much more advanced. Batelle's Nick Annetta is pleased with the results, saying that it's "amazing to see what he's accomplished." In addition, surgeons had to use electrode-filled sleeves to help Burkhart restore the strength in his muscles that had atrophied through underuse. The fact that he can now play something as intensive as Guitar Hero bodes well for the future of the technology.
The next stage in the project is to implant Neurobridge chips into four other people in order to refine the technology further. The first one is due to go under the knife this summer, and it's hoped that a wire-free version can be developed in the near future. Dr. Jerry Mysiw is a 30-year veteran of neuroscience but even he is staggered at the level of improvement. He believes that "this is the first time we've been able to offer realistic hope to people who have very challenging lives."