Using a chip implanted in his brain, a paralyzed man achieves a breakthrough toward ushering in a bionic future controlled by
COLUMBUS, Ohio – First they screwed the end of the gray cord into the metal silo rising out of Ian Burkhart’s skull. Later they laid his right forearm across two foam cylinders, and they wrapped it with thin strips that looked like film from an old home movie camera. They ran him through some practice drills, and then it was time for him to try.
If he succeeded at this next task, it would be science fiction come true: His thoughts would bypass his broken spinal cord. With the help of an algorithm and some electrodes, he would move his once-dead limb again — a scientific first. “Ready?” the young engineer, Nick Annetta, asked. “Three. Two. One.”
Burkhart, 23, marshaled every neuron he could muster, and he thought about his hand.
The last time the hand obeyed him, it was 2010 and Burkhart was running into the Atlantic. The hand had gripped the steering wheel as he drove the van from Ohio University to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where he and friends were celebrating the end of freshman year.
The hand unclenched to drop his towel on the sand. Burkhart splashed into the waves, the hand flying above his head, and he dived.
In an instant, he felt nothing. Not his hand. Not his legs. Only the breeze drying the saltwater on his face.
His friends had saved him from drowning. A helicopter carried him to a hospital. He learned that he had smashed into a sandbar, hidden by the waves, and broken his neck. He returned home to the Columbus suburbs, unable to move anything below his elbows.
He lived in his father and stepmother’s basement. He needed help with almost everything. Showering took 2½ hours, with assistance. The night before the doctors strapped Burkhart’s arm into an electrode sleeve, before he tried to make that hand move again, he had to call his dad to come turn him from his side to his back so he could sleep.
His doctors said he signed up for this experiment — for elective brain surgery — because he hoped, someday, if the technology could get there, to ease his parents’ burden in caring for him. “I’d say that the thing I miss most is just being independent,” Burkhart said shortly before doctors implanted a chip in his brain. “You have to rely on other people so much.
“It would really be nice to just do something as simple as open up a water bottle myself.”
The next day, doctors opened Burkhart’s skull. They crowned his head with a small metal cylinder, attached to bone by screws, and ran a wire between it and the chip they stuck like Velcro to his brain.
Three times a week, he rolled his wheelchair up to a computer monitor and allowed scientists from Battelle, a nonprofit research organization that invented the technology they hoped would let him move his hand with his thoughts again, to plug into his brain. Together, they practiced. He would watch a digital hand move on the screen, and he would think about moving his hand the same way. The computer would read his thoughts and move a second, animated hand at his direction.
Finally, four years since he lost command of the hand, it was time to try for real.
Burkhart rolled his electric wheelchair into a room at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. The round port stuck awkwardly out of his head. When they plugged the cord in, he looked like Neo, the Keanu Reeves character from “The Matrix” movies.
When the time came to start the attempt, the room was packed with at least seven cameras, two Battelle engineers (Annetta and Chad Bouton, the project leader), two doctors (Ali Rezai, who had performed the brain surgery, and Jerry Mysiw, the rehab specialist who recruited Burkhart to the project) and Burkhart’s father, Doug.
The doctors knew the chip was in the right place to pick up the brain signals. The engineers knew their algorithm was translating his thoughts to movements. They believed the film strips strapped around his forearm, which they called a sleeve, would stimulate his muscles to make those movements a physical reality. The big variable was Ian Burkhart: Could he will his hand to move?
“He’s got to focus on the task,” Rezai said. “Imagine the task.”
They started with the drills Burkhart had done for weeks, moving the animated hand on the screen with his thoughts. He repeated the sequence several times. “Both Ian and the computer are learning at the same time,” Bouton said.