Paralyzed Man Plays Guitar Hero, Thanks To Innovative Brain Chip

Watch the NeuroLife brain chip, as it helps one paralyzed man regain use of his hands and fingers

Ian Burkhart plays Guitar Hero with the help of the NeuroLife implant — (Ohio State University)
Apr 13, 2016 at 1:07 PM ET

Six years have passed since Ian Burkhart, 25, was last able to control his own hands. Shortly after a swimming accident left him quadriplegic, Burkhart resolved to improve his condition however possible. He enrolled in a risky experimental procedure in 2014 that involved implanting a computer chip into his brain. But now, a new study published in Nature describes how Burkhart exceeded expectations within two short years—and regained use of his hands.

“This study marks the first time a person living with paralysis has regained movement by using signals recorded from within the brain,” said coauthor Chad Bouton of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in a press conference. Thanks to the brain chip, Burkhart can now perform, “daily activities that people who are not living with paralysis take for granted.”

Apparently, this includes Guitar Hero.

Ian Burkhart was only 19-years old when he dove head-first into a sandbar while on vacation in North Carolina. Although his friends rescued him from the surf, Burkhart was left paralyzed. He remained optimistic, however. “I knew from the onset of my injury with the way science, technology and medicine are progressing, something would come along throughout my lifetime that would improve my quality of life,” Burkhart said in a press conference.

But when Dr. Ali Rezai of Ohio State University approached Burkhart with the idea of implanting a chip in his brain that could eventually help him regain control over his body, Burkhart balked. “It came down to the million dollar question,” Burkhart recalls. “Do you want to have brain surgery?” Nonetheless, Burkhart set aside his doubts and cast his lot with Rezai and his team in 2014.

The brain chip is more precisely known as an electrode array and is about the size of a pea. Once the array was implanted in Burkhart’s brain, the rest of the process was relatively straightforward. Our brains normally send messages to our spinal cords which, in turn, tell our muscles to move. In Burkhart’s case, a type of neural bypass technology known as the NeuroLife System would cut out the dysfunctional middleman, by sending signals from the brain to the array, from the array to a computer, from the computer to a custom-made sleeve fitted around his arm and from the sleeve to his arm muscles—all without ever engaging his damaged spinal cord. It’s all very simple, in theory.

But in practice—it takes a lot of practice. Since the chip can only pick up signals from the cluster of brain cells immediately surrounding the array, there isn’t a whole lot of signal to work with. And the few signals that do manage to make it to the sensor often mean nothing to the computer, which is only programmed to respond to the most basic signals and send the most basic messages to the sleeve. So since in 2014, the herculean task of harnessing the right signals and translating them into meaningful code has been the mutual work of man and machine—Burkhart and NeuroLife.

Burkhart has participated in hundreds of sessions at Ohio State over the past two years, focusing all of his energy on sending the right signals from his brain to the computer so that researchers can help him teach the machine to respond to his thoughts and properly activate his sleeve. “The success of this study is due to Ian,” said Dr. Rezai in a press conference. “He’s the rockstar here who went from being quadriplegic from a devastating accident to being able to play Guitar Hero.”

But Burkhart’s victory is not enough, according to Dr. Rezai. “We need to accelerate the pace for this,” he says. “This technology has developed rapidly over the past decade—it may be coming of age at this moment.” Rezai suspects that, beyond spinal cord injuries, the NeuroLife technology could also help restore function lost due to traumatic brain injury or even stroke.

Meanwhile, Burkhart is thankful for the small things. In addition to his apparently incredible Xbox skills, the brain chip has helped Burkart learn to pour himself a glass of water, stir it with a stirring rod and lift it to his lips for a drink. It has allowed him to begin dressing himself and, more than anything else, helped him regain some of his independence and dignity.

“I know first-hand what was taken away from me when I had my injury,” Burkart said. “The first time I was able to open and close my hands, it gave me a sense of hope.”