From paralysis to performer

A ground-breaking new treatment for paralysis is being trialled in the USA which is capable of restoring movement and control to paralysed limbs.

Paralysis occurs when signals from the brain can no longer reach the muscles to tell them what to do. To date, medicine has been unable to come up with a procedure or technology that can reverse the effects of paralysis, but medical science may be on the brink of offering a realistic solution.

Ian Burkhart from Ohio, who was paralysed from the elbows down in a diving accident, has for the first time in 6 years been able to play a guitar, all with the help of a computer chip. An implanted microchip is used to read the signals that Ian’s brain is sending out to his muscles. The computer then sends a message to a computer that decodes the signals, working out which muscle Ian is trying to use. The computer then send messages via an electronic sleeve attached to his arm which stimulates the correct muscles, allowing Ian to use his lower arm and fingers to hold and play a guitar. The technology has also allowed him to pour a drink and swipe his credit card.

Ian is still adjusting to the thought processes that he has to go through to complete the movements, finding it mentally exhausting. He said:

You really have to break down each part of that motion and think about it in a more concentrated way. For the first 19 years of my life it was something I definitely took for granted,”

For those with paralysis, the technology is an exciting development and could lead to increased independence and reduce the need for care and support.

The technology and treatment is a long way from being rolled out on a wide scale. The microchip used to pick up brain signals is only capable of capturing a few hundred out of the millions of signals sent out by the brain. Improvement in the chips capabilities would be required to enable a user to get the maximum benefit out of the product.

Practicality is also an issue. The current system uses bulky wires attached to a computer, which is not mobile and restricts the user to a fixed place in a room. In years to come there will no doubt be a way that these signals can be transferred wirelessly, but until that time comes, it’s unlikely that the technology will be available to the “mass market.” We may be a decade or so away from the technology making sizeable strides in rehabilitation, but this should not detract from the progress made to date.

Dr Ali Rezai was the surgeon who implanted Ian’s chip. She said:

This really provides hope, we believe, for many patients in the future as this technology evolves and matures to help people who have disabilities from spinal injury or traumatic brain injury or stroke to allow them to be more functional and independent.”

If you or anyone you know would like to find out how our serious injury team can help obtain rehabilitation and support after a serious brain or spinal injury, contact our specialist lawyers on 0800 316 8892.