by Rashmi Nemade
Scientific discovery goes in spurts. There is a period of time when progress is slow and incremental, and then, in a sudden burst, an innovation or revelation changes everything. Which then sets the stage for the next cycle of slow and incremental progress.
The slow and incremental is critical for progress in general. For example, many were working on the invention of artificial light, making progress bit-by-bit, day-by-day, when all of the sudden, Thomas Edison’s light bulb changed humanity forever. We’ve since been making more incremental progress in artificial light, but nothing yet as transformative as the light bulb.
And so we plug along, recognizing that there are all kinds of problems in the world, but not always able to solve them to the point of having a massive impact on humanity. However, there is a sudden burst of discovery happening right now. It’s called Neurobridge Technology, and it’s the ‘light bulb’ of neuroprosthetics.
A fusing of neuroscience and biomedical engineering, the field of neuroprosthetics interfaces the brain and a computer rather than a prosthetic and a limb. To explain: a standard prosthetic connects onto, say, an arm to give function to a hand. In neuroprosthetics, the brain is connected to a computer, which then is used to give function to, say, a wheelchair.
But Neurobridge technology does not just give function to a wheelchair, it gives function to a person’s own body. It empowers paralyzed patients to regain conscious control of their fingers, hands, wrists and arms. Those of us attending TEDxColumbus witnessed this process as we watched 23-year-old Ian Burkhart, paralyzed as a teenager, grasp a mug with his own hand and take a sip.
Maybe like you, I was amazed to see a quadriplegic man pick up a mug, not with a prosthetic or a machine, but with his own hand controlled by his own thoughts. I needed to know more, so I reached out to Chad Bouton. He is the inventor of Neurobridge. He works at the Battelle Memorial Institute and is the speaker who shared his innovation at TEDxColumbus. He is also just about as modest as they come. As he talks about his revolutionary Neurobridge work, in the same breath, he cites the work of others before him, appreciates the privilege of working with experts, and is grateful for the tremendous resources at Battelle.
He is also grateful, appreciative and privileged to work with Ian Burkhart, who volunteered to help develop this technology and willingly endured hours of testing, surgery, and even more testing. Burkhart is now the first person ever to move a paralyzed limb with his own thoughts. “Ian is an incredibly hard-working, committed and persistent young man. He has a positive outlook and is excited to be a part of developing a technology that can help others,” says Bouton.
So how does this technology work? Neurobridge bypasses damaged areas of the spinal cord so the brain can communicate directly with muscles. The system combines a computer chip implanted in the brain, a brain-computer interface, and a sleeve that transmits electrical signals to the patient’s forearm and hand. You’ve heard of a heart bypass, well this is a neural “bypass,” taking signals from the brain, rerouting them around the damaged spinal cord and sending them directly to the muscles.
That’s the basic idea. But to actually make this happen, it takes an extraordinary and collaborative effort. Bouton had good reason to believe that his inventive idea would work, but proving that this technology could actually help people was essential. Bouton and a team within Battelle, along with doctors at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, worked on decoding thoughts of movement, the implantation of a microchip by neurosurgery, the electronic sleeve, and the rehabilitation it would take to make this system workable. At the same time, Burkhart began using electrical stimulation to activate and build-up his atrophied forearm muscles, getting them ready to move again—at his command.
Burkhart also underwent tests with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). Shown images of hand motions, he was asked to think about each motion. His thoughts were, in a sense, ‘read’ by the fMRI and translated into computer code. This is the code that would allow an implanted computer to read his thoughts and tell the sleeve on his arm what to do.
During a delicate three-hour surgery, neurosurgeons placed a pea-sized Neurobridge computer chip in Burkhart’s motor cortex. A port was created on his skull, so that a cable could be connected to interface with a computer. The Neurobridge chip reads his electrical brain signals, then sends them to the computer that recodes them and sends them to the sleeve he wears on his arm. The sleeve, with 200 electrodes that stimulate various muscle nerves and fibers, then signals his hand to move. All of this happens in less than a 10th of a second.
“It still takes Ian a remarkable amount of concentration to move, but he’s getting better at it every day,” says Bouton. In addition, when we move, we also have feedback from our moving body parts. But for Burkhart, the communication is one-way. His hand cannot tell his brain that the glass is grasped or say anything about its temperature. Burkhart must use his eyes to confirm that his arm is doing what he has told his arm to do.
Bouton envisions a future where mobile devices will allow patients to be connected to a much smaller computer, so that they will be more mobile. For now, Ian is helping to fine tune the Neurobridge system. He works with the sleeve, challenging his muscles and the machinery. Together, he and the team figure out if the system needs more electrodes and where in order to get better movement. The Neurobridge team is now looking forward to helping four more patients in this way. A clinical trial is underway. The expectation is that this technology can help people who suffer from any number of neurodegenerative diseases that affect nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, whether paralysis, stroke injuries, or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Other technology has used computers or robotics to move muscles. Neurobridge technology uses a computer as a conveyer of information, but it is the mind that is controlling and instigating the muscle movement. This is groundbreaking. It is game changing. It has never been done before and should be a springboard in the field of neuroprosthetics, launching the next set of advances.
Rashmi Nemade is principal at BioMedText, Inc.