Though he was left paralyzed from the neck down, Ian Burkhart can now play Guitar Hero with his thoughts. A computer chip in his brain enables him to play along to the rhythm of the songs, a process detailed in a paper published on April 13th.
“Once we decipher the signals in the brain, we can read those thought patterns, and we translate those signals into a language muscles can understand,” Chad Bouton, the lead technologist on the project, tells Tech Insider. “We send electrical impulses to the forearm through the skin, so no second surgery is needed. His muscles contract, and then the movement begins.”
Burkhart can also pour liquid from a bottle into a glass, swipe a credit card, and pick up a cell phone. It’s the first time that a paralyzed person has been able to do such precise motor control movements with their own hand.
It’s a sign of how brain implants are moving out of science fiction and into reality.
A 2009 study found that 5.6 Americans live with paralysis, or about 1 in 50 people. While attempts to repair the damage of spinal cord damage have come up short, Burkhart’s “neural bypass” — which sidesteps the barrier presented by spinal injury with electronics — gives hope that they could recover movement.
Bouton, a vice president at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, says the success of Burkhart’s implant shows how “the sky is the limit” for this direction of inquiry.
The chip in Burkhart’s brain has learned the way that his brain activates when trying to move his hand, and has tuned into those electrical patterns, meaning that his brain can interact directly with a computer. Since so much of human life is dependent on the electrical signaling within our brains, the potential applications of brain implants are huge.
In five or ten years, an improved version of the implant that Burkhart has could provide sensory feedback: a sense of touch and a sense of where the limb is in space. Prosthetics are already getting there.
The chip could also be used in more brain-specific cases.
Bouton says that brain chips could be used in cases of stroke, helping patients to re-learn the use of their hands. For now, systems like this are restricted to a lab setting: there’s a long road of FDA approvals before domestic use is a possibility.
But as the technology matures, there’s the potential for restoring memory loss and enabling the formation of new memories for people with brain damage.
“It’s taking what we’ve learned in deciphering brain signals and learning how to decode those signals and being able to bypass or reroute signals in the nervous system,” Bouton says.
It’s a prospect that the Pentagon is investing a reported $80 million into. At a conference last September, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) revealed that implants were able to detect brain activity associated with forming and recalling memories.
The DARPA Restoring Active Memory initiative will build computational models of how memories are formed and understand “how targeted stimulation might be applied to help the brain reestablish an ability to encode new memories following brain injury,” says DARPA biotech head Dr. Justin Sanchez.
In other words, a brain implant could help people form new memories, just as Burkhart’s chip is helping him play Guitar Hero.