Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Bridging the gap

In June this year, 23 Ian Burkhart became the first patient ever to move his paralysed hand by using just his thoughts. This is a huge breakthrough, and is thanks to an innovative new technology known as “Neurobridge”.

Neurobridge has been made possible thanks to a collaboration of researchers 
at Battelle and doctors at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Paralysis is caused by damage to the nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord. There is a multitude of different ways however that this damage can be inflicted and can proliferate within the body. For example, a major cause of paralysis is stroke, but other causes include ALS, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. The actual paralysis can also manifest itself in different ways – sometimes it is localised to one area of the body or limb, or it can follow specific patterns. For example, ascending paralysis is a form that begins in the lower limbs and spreads up the body, but the opposite occurs in the aptly named descending paralysis. A more common form is sleep paralysis, which is temporary and occurs during REM sleep – dysregulation of this period of sleep is what causes the paralysis to occur. In Ian Burkhart's case, he became a quadriplegic (all four of his limbs are paralysed) following a diving accident in 2010.

The reason that this new technology works is because, as research leader Chad Bouton states, Neurobridge works “much like a heart bypass, but instead of bypassing blood, we’re actually bypassing electrical signals”. Neurobridge connects the brain directly to muscles, rather than through the spinal cord and therefore takes the signals from the brain and goes around the injury to deliver them directly to the muscles.

Before sitting down to move his paralysed limb, Ian Burkhart first had to undergo a 3-hour surgery in order to allow Dr Ali Rezai (one of the head clinicians) to implant a chip onto the motor cortex of his brain. This chip interprets electrical brain signals and sends them to a computer. Here, they are recorded and sent on to the electrode stimulation sleeve that Burkhart is required to wear, which stimulates the correct muscles to execute his movements. This all happens within a tenth of a second!

This image shows Dr Ali Rezai implanting the chip into Burkhart's brain
This technology is insanely smart, so much so that it is actually hard to grasp just how much goes on in order to allow the paralysed limb to move! Personally I’m particularly impressed by the interpretation and conversion of signals (from brain to computer etc) in order to create the desired movement.  It’s also important to realise that in order for Burkhart to be able to move his hand, even with all Neurobridge technology in place and up and running, had to work for months stimulating his forearm, in order for his muscles to even be responsive.

In the video below you can see Ian Burkhart move his paralysed hand for the first time! 



Neurobridge is still in its early stages before widespread distribution – Ian’s use of the technology was due to him being the first patient selected in clinical trials. Normally there are 4 phases of clinical trials before mass production and this can take up to 10-15 years before licensing! However, this can be a good thing, as it will allow the company to develop and fine-tune this amazing technology even further. Dr Rezai even said that future development of Neurobridge may one day be able to help patients affected by nervous system injuries such as strokes.


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