Have you ever thought about how smart your brain really is? Have you ever thought about the amazing things that it can do that we aren’t even aware of? Like breathing? Or blinking? Or producing thoughts, actions and words every second of every day? The brain is the most powerful and complex machine that there ever was and that there ever will be—remember that for finals!
On April 13, the science journal Nature included an article that described a new approach to neural prosthetic systems. To backtrack a bit, neural prosthetic systems are systems that have allowed individuals to use their brain activity to move computer cursors, wheelchairs and robotic limbs. This new approach, however, uses brain activity to move and control a person’s real limbs—not just computers and machinery. In the words of Chad Bouton, a coauthor of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, NY: “we literally are reconnecting the brain to the body.”
In 2010, college student Ian Burkhart suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down. Since the spinal cord was injured, neural signals from the brain could not be sent to the arms. The new method of neural prosthetics bypasses the spinal cord altogether. Instead of a signal being sent from the brain, down the spinal cord and then to the muscles, the new pathway would just be from the brain directly to the muscles. With Burkhart’s consent, during the surgery, doctors implanted a series of electrodes directly into his brain, where they picked up on neural activity that controls hand movements. Once the electrodes were in place, Burkhart was asked to watch videos of a range of hand and finger movements and attempted to copy the movements himself. Even though his arms and hands weren’t moving, his attempts to move them caused neural pathways to occur in the brain. They just could not be sent to the muscles because the route was disrupted from the injury of the spinal cord. A computer system learned to recognize the neural pathways that accompanied each specific movement and an equation was formed that translated those specific signals into motion commands.
On Burkhart’s forearm, a thin and flexible band of electrodes stimulated hand muscles to move based on the specific motion commands from the neural pathways detected from the electrodes on the brain. After a year and over countless sessions in the lab, Burkhart was able to generate complex hand movements, such as wiggling, pinching and grasping. This system, which bypasses the spinal cord completely, has even allowed him to pick up objects, pinch his fingers together and play Guitar Hero, something that has never been done without the use of robotics.
Unfortunately, this system is not yet able to be taken outside of the lab. The electrodes must be re-calibrated each session and the apparatus is composed of bulky cables. Neural engineers do have high expectations for neural prosthetics in the near future however, and expect the machinery to become more precise and less bulky. In time, this new system of prosthetics will be practiced for the restoration of other muscle movements. Spinal injuries that cause paralysis of the legs, arms and even from the neck down will soon be combated by this spinal cord bypass system. The future of prosthetics looks bright and Burkhart’s story is only the beginning.
So, as you go into your last couple of weeks at the Mount, remember: If your brain has the power to bypass your spinal cord and move paralyzed limbs, it surely has the power to get you through finals week!