Computer Device Allows Paralyzed Man to Regain Movement

16:12 minutes

Ian Burkhart is a business student at Columbus State University, in Ohio. He’s a lacrosse coach, too. But back in June 2010, he took a trip that would change his life forever.

“I was on vacation with some friends of mine shortly after completing my freshman year of college. We were down in the outer banks of North Carolina, playing around in the waves. I dove into a wave that pushed me down into a sandbar. Therefore the water was much more shallow than I thought it was. At that point I had such a hard impact on my head that I broke my neck at the C5 level, and damaged my spinal cord.”

The accident left Ian unable to move much of his body, below his elbows. But now, about six years later, he’s regained the ability to move his hands, pinch objects, pick up bottles, even play Guitar Hero. How? Burkhart’s brain has been wired to a computer that eavesdrops on activity in his motor cortex, and understands how he wants to move. The computer then transmits signals to an armband studded with electrodes, which stimulate Ian’s muscles, allowing him to move his hand.

Chad Bouton, who led the research team that outfitted Burkhart with the device, explains how it works. They detail the device in the journal Nature.

Ian Burkhart wasn’t able to join us for the live radio segment (he’s on the road with his lacrosse team) so producer Christopher Intagliata interviewed him earlier this week. Here’s the full conversation, parts of which appear in the live show.

  • Ian Burkhart, 24, plays a guitar video game as part of a study with neural bypass technology.

    A computer chip in Burkhart`s brain reads his thoughts, decodes them, then sends signals to a sleeve on his arm, that allows him to move his hand. Credit: Ohio State University/Batelle

  • Ian tests out the electrodes

    Credit: Ohio State University/Batelle

  • Swiping a credit card was something Ian Burkhart, 24, never thought he would do again

    Burkhart was paralyzed from the shoulders down after a diving accident in 2010, but regained functional use of his hand through the use of neural bypass technology. Credit: Ohio State University/Batelle

  • Ian mimics hand movements he sees on screen to refine his control and dexterity.

    Credit: Ohio State University/Batelle

  • Ian tests his range of movement

    Credit: Ohio State University/Batelle

  • Ian tests his range of movement

    Credit: Ohio State University/Batelle

Segment Guests

Chad Bouton

Chad Bouton is Vice President, Advanced Engineering and Technology at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York.

Ian Burkhart

Ian Burkhart is a student at Columbus State University in Dublin, Ohio.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Our next story is about a guy named Ian Burkhart. He’s a business student at Columbus State University in Ohio, a lacrosse coach, too. But back in June 2010, he took a trip that would change his life forever.

IAN BURKHART: I was on vacation with some friends of mine shortly after completing my freshman year of college. We were down in the Outer Banks, North Carolina, playing around in the waves. And I dove into a wave that then pushed me down into a sand bar. So therefore, the water was much more shallow than I thought it was. At that point, I had such a hard impact on my head that I broke my neck at the C5 level and damaged my spinal cord.

IRA FLATOW: The accident left Ian unable to move much of his body below his elbows. But now, six years later, he has regained the ability to move his hands, pinch objects, pick up bottles, even play Guitar Hero. How is that possible? His brain has been wired to a computer that reads his mind, basically, and understands what he wants to do. And the computer is wired to the muscles in his hands, where it stimulates the muscles he needs to pick up that bottle or play Guitar Hero.

Ian wasn’t able to join us today. He’s on the road with his lacrosse team. But we caught up with him earlier this week. And we’ll be sharing a few of his thoughts throughout the show.

With us now, though, is Chad Bouton. He’s vice president of Advanced Engineering and Technology at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York. He is part of the team that helped Ian regain those movements. And you can read about their work in the journal Nature this week. He joins us today from WOSU. Welcome to Science Friday.

CHAD BOUTON: Well, thank you. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Mr. Bouton, I saw videos of Ian using as hands. And you know, it almost looks like science fiction.

CHAD BOUTON: Yes, a lot of people make that comment. But we’ve really, I think, advanced in many ways in this field. And we’re now really getting a better understanding about what happens when someone has an injury like this, and what happens in terms of brain activity, and how we can continue to record and even decipher that activity and then link it to computers in different types of devices, like robotic arms and, in this case, even link it back to their bodies to help them regain movement.

IRA FLATOW: So Ian has electrodes coming out of his head. And they go to what? Give us the pathway and what’s going on here.

CHAD BOUTON: Yes. So Ian has a tiny electrode array implanted in his motor cortex. And it’s in the area responsible for hand movement. And so this tiny array is actually picking up little electrical signals that are created by his neurons, literally in his brain as he thinks about hand movements.

Then we’re feeding those signals into a computer, where we have developed special software that actually can learn his brain patterns for the different movements and then can actually decipher or even, in essence, read his thoughts about those movements. And then from there, we take it into another system that was developed over the last several years to generate special electrical impulses that actually activate his muscles. And once his muscles contract, he can actually make the movements, all under the control of his own thoughts.

IRA FLATOW: Huh. This is “Science Friday” from PRI, Public Radio International. So did he have to learn how to will those actions to happen?

CHAD BOUTON: Yes. Actually, so since it had been several years since his injury when we began the study, it turned out in the first sessions, he really had to concentrate and focus to really kind of evoke the correct brain neuro– or modulation, as we say. And once he did that, however, the movements began.

But he was often very fatigued mentally at the end of these initial sessions. And he has even said and commented that it was kind of like taking a six-hour exam. And he was just drained at the end.

IRA FLATOW: In fact, we talked with Ian earlier in the week. And he talked a lot about then most of us probably don’t think about our movements much, but just want to move, and when we do it. But Ian sort of had to reteach his brain how to do this stuff and relearn how to move. And I’d like to play a clip of Ian describing that experience.

IAN BURKHART: So it’s something that I kind of had to break down and relearn how to make these movements occur, because it’s not really a natural thing to think about, OK, what muscles in my arm am I trying to move in order to get my fingers to extend. And then exactly what do I have to think about in my brain to make that happen. So it’s something that for the first few months of using the system, I had to concentrate extremely hard. And in turn, after a session, I would be mentally exhausted to the point where I just wouldn’t really to do anything for a while, because it requires such a deep level of concentration to kind of learn how to do that.

But now, almost two years after the start of the study, it’s getting to be much, much easier. The biggest thing is also, without having any sensation in my hand, I don’t really know when my fingers are all the way extended or if they’re closed or anything like that. So I have to really rely on my sight. And we’ve then able to, through the training process, either have one of the researchers put their own hand out and make the movement, and I kind of watch that and try to mirror that with my thoughts. Or we do the same thing with a virtual hand on the computer screen.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, how many cells in his brain did you need to tap into?

CHAD BOUTON: Well, you have to realize there’s 100 billion neurons in the brain, give or take. And we’re only listening to just a handful of those neurons. I would estimate the method we’re using, we’re probably listening in only on maybe a couple hundred neurons at the most and just in and around the array itself.

And that made it extremely challenging in trying to decipher between brain patterns for, say, flex the thumb versus, say, the index finger, or to make what we call a power grasp, to pick up an object like a water bottle, or if Ian wanted to do a pinch grasp, to pick up a smaller object. All those brain patterns are slightly different, especially when you’re only listening to a handful of neurons, as we are. So we had to development machine learning algorithms, as we call it, in the computer that actually learn his brain activity. And over a period of about 10 to 15 minutes, the software actually improves itself and learns throughout that period while Ian is learning.


CHAD BOUTON: So the machine and Ian are learning together. It’s really amazing to watch.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re going to come back and talk lots more with Chad and also hear more from Ian, talking about this amazing way to get the brain to control a paralysis. Our number 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri, s-c-i-f-r-i. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.

This is “Science Friday.” I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about decoding the brain’s thoughts with a computer and how that helped Ian Burkhart, a man living with paralysis, to regain movement in his hands. My guest is that Chad Bouton. He’s vice president of Advanced Engineering and Technology at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, Long Island.

This is– could this– I’m sure you’ve gotten all kinds of feedback, how can you do this on me. I’m paralyzed. I have friends, I have relatives. We all know people who want to go through this. What do you say to them?

CHAD BOUTON: Yes, no. Absolutely, we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback, a lot of people asking where it’s going and when it would be available on the market. It is in the early stages of development. We’re still in that kind of learning stage, in the experimental stage. But we do believe we’re making big steps forward, including these recent findings that just came out this week.

And this is really the first time that someone has been able to regain movement through the use of signals recorded from within the brain and then linked back to muscle activation in real time so that they are in complete control of that movement. But again, we’re just at the beginning. We have many things to work through. Researchers that are there in this field are all kind of going or tackling different aspects of this. But I think– so it’s hard to predict when it will be available.

IRA FLATOW: What’s the single biggest hurdle that you have to overcome?

CHAD BOUTON: Well, I think that probably the single biggest hurdle is to continue to develop better technology to pick up even more signals in the brain. We can’t just be listening in on just a handful of neurons, if you will. We need to gather more signals, so that we can pull more information out and allow someone to do even more complex movements and movements that would be useful in daily activity, so they can regain an increased level of independence.

IRA FLATOW: And you couldn’t just give this same equipment to another patient, put it on his or her head and expect the same thing. You’d have to be individualized for each person?

CHAD BOUTON: That’s right. We actually have to learn the brain activity patterns for each person. But we have developed ways to do that now. Just as was a little bit described earlier, showing a hand on the screen and allowing the person to kind of watch the movements and then think about those movements allows the user, like Ian, to be able to actually regain those movements typically in a matter of about 15 minutes. And this is something we developed through the years. But that’s that idea of the person and the computer working together and learning together.

IRA FLATOW: Did I hear you correctly? It just took him 15 minutes to learn how to move one part that he was trying to move?

CHAD BOUTON: That’s typically– when he comes in for a session– now, this is after, of course, weeks of getting used to the technology and getting past that stage where he was mentally fatigued. But yes, typically he’ll come in. And within about 15 minutes, he can actually be up and running on a set of movements.

Now, we also need to improve how many different movements can be done. Typically, we’ll have a set of movements, as was shown in the paper released this week. But these movements take time. And over the months, he get better and better at more advanced movements. But yes, when he comes in, typically about 15 minutes to train on a set of movements.

IRA FLATOW: Would you be moving to other limbs now also?

CHAD BOUTON: Great question. So we think that since we’ve now shown that it’s possible to reroute signals from the brain around a spinal cord injury and to link those signals back to the muscles, in essence, we believe that it could not only apply to the upper extremities– the arms and the hand– but potentially one day, even the lower extremities.

IRA FLATOW: It sort of seems to me that this is turning out– and I may be wrong in assuming this– much simpler than you thought. The wiring seems to be much simpler than you thought. Or is it just that computing power is so many better, that you could– the complex signals with the computing power are easier to interpret?

CHAD BOUTON: Well, I think there’s a number of factors. Computing power has gotten better. We’ve developed better decoding, as we call them algorithms, through the years to interpret these signals. I think that we also have learned that even after an injury, a severe injury to the spinal cord or in some cases, say, even a brain stem injury or stroke, that there’s not perhaps as much reorganization in the brain as we thought, at least in the motor area, where we are listening in on these signals.

And so in Ian’s case, even after several years, he was able to quickly relearn, if you will, how to think about these movements. And again, he’s thinking about the actual movements. And we wanted to make it natural and as intuitive as possible.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We have one more clip from Ian, whom we talked to earlier in the week. He seems remarkably hopeful about the future of these sorts of devices. Here is what he told us.

IAN BURKHART: Losing the ability to use my hands has made a huge impact on my life. For me, being paralyzed, not being able to walk isn’t the biggest thing. There’s other things that kind of take precedent over that.

So it’s going to be something that a lot of people are going to have to work towards. And it’s not going to be just one solution that one group is able to find. This might be something that takes years and years and years until it can be something that people are using outside of the lab and in their everyday life.

So I’m just glad that I was able to participate in it and help kind of push that envelope even further. Even if it’s something that I won’t get firsthand experience from, it’s something that I know I’ve been able to help a lot of other people that have a similar condition to me. This is just firsthand restoring hope and showing people that we’re not going to have to settle.

IRA FLATOW: Very interesting. He mentioned in the earlier clip that the one thing he does not have is sense of touch in his fingers or limbs. Is that a challenge to you to try to make the information go in the other direction?

CHAD BOUTON: Yes. Right now, it is a one-direction, or uni-directional, bypass. But in the future, we do want to try to create a system that’s bi-directional and basically taking sensory information and sending it back up to the brain and allowing that sense of touch and even, what we call, proprioception, where you know where your joint is in space and what position your hand is in. And that’s so important. And I remember Ian commenting on that in the very beginning of the study– how it was a bit of an odd kind of feeling, if you will, or lack thereof when he went to touch and grab that first object. He could see it, but he couldn’t feel it.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Do you expect that others now will follow you? Have you created interest in this field in other people?

CHAD BOUTON: Oh, well, there’s definitely multiple groups working hard in this area, advancing different aspects of it. I hope this just will spark even more interest, especially with young people that are pursuing their degrees and wanting to enter into this field. It’s really a combination of biology and technology and medicine, all together, and neuroscience. And it’s just an incredible, incredible field. And it’s growing at an alarming rate right now.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, I want to congratulate you and your whole team for this success–


IRA FLATOW: –that you’ve had.

CHAD BOUTON: Well, thank you. It was really a team effort. And I guess, the star of the team for certain was Ian. And he really was an inspiration to all of us throughout this process.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for taking time to be with us today. Chad Bouton is vice president of Advanced Engineering and Technology at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research here in Manhasset, Long Island, New York. And we have that whole, unedited conversation with Ian. We only played a couple of pieces of it. But it’s a– whole thing is up there on our website, if you want to check it out at sciencefriday.com/ian.

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About Christopher Intagliata

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