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A spinal injury can paralyze a person by blocking the electrical signals that usually travel from the brain to muscles in the body. Now scientists are finding ways to bypass a damaged spine. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on a study of a paralyzed man who has regained the ability to do simple things, like pour water from a bottle.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The man is Ian Burkhart. He was paralyzed in 2010 after diving into a wave in shallow water. The accident left him with some arm movement but no use of his hands. Then about two years ago, scientists equipped Burkhart with a system that allows him to control his right hand with his thoughts.
IAN BURKHART: The first time of moving my hand, that was really just, like, that flicker of hope, knowing that this is something that's working. I will be able to use my hand again.
HAMILTON: Burkhart was speaking at a media briefing to publicize the study, which appears in the journal Nature. After many months of practice, he can grasp objects and even move individual fingers. Chad Bouton of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, says that's possible because of technology that is intercepting and decoding electrical signals before they reach Burkhart's damaged spine.
CHAD BOUTON: And these signals are coming from the brain, the motor area of the brain. And we're actually routing them around the spinal cord injury and then reinserting those signals into the muscles of the paralyzed patient, and that patient is actually regaining movement.
HAMILTON: Here's how the system works - there are electrodes implanted in Burkhart's brain that pick up the signals and send them to a computer via a plug in his skull. Then the computer sends its own signals to stimulators wrapped around Burkhart's forearm, causing muscles that control the hand to contract. Bouton says Burkhart's ability to use his hand is improving steadily.
BOUTON: Ian is learning how to think about very detailed movements, and the machine is actually learning how to decipher those signals more effectively as well. So they're actually learning together.
HAMILTON: The system was developed by a team at Ohio State University and Battelle Memorial Institute. It all sounds very impressive, but to people in the field it's actually pretty routine. Robert Kirsch is at Case Western Reserve University.
ROBERT KIRSCH: The brain computer interfacing that they did is kind of garden-variety. There's a number of groups around the country doing very similar things. And the electrical stimulation that they've done is really old-fashioned and has a very limited upside.
HAMILTON: Kirsch says other groups have obtained better results using electrical stimulators surgically implanted in the muscles instead of placed on the skin. Leigh Hochberg at Brown University says it's clear now that paralyzed people can use thoughts to control computers, robotic arms and even their own limbs. But all of this happens in hospitals and labs with researchers running the equipment. Hochberg says what paralyzed people really need is a technology they can use on their own at home.
LEIGH HOCHBERG: A fully implanted technology, one that doesn't have wires or plugs that are sticking up above the scalp, doesn't have wires that are wrapped around the outside of the arm. The ideal technology in many ways is one that's invisible.
HAMILTON: And Hochberg says that will require technological advances, like smaller computers and a way to transmit signals from the brain without using plugs and wires.
HOCHBERG: The process of getting from where we are today, which is some exciting early clinical research, all the way through to a clinically useful, vetted device that will help people with paralysis is still a long one.
HAMILTON: Even so, researchers say the wait is probably year, not decades. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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