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'Thought control' technology helps paralysed man move fingers

Video report by ITV News Science Correspondent Alok Jha

A man who was completely paralysed after a swimming accident has had movement restored to his fingers for the first time using "thought control" technology.

Ian Burkhart, 24, from Dublin, Ohio is now able to grasp objects, pour and stir drinks, and even play computer games using a wearable sleeve that sends electrical impulses to his muscles.

Scientists developed a computer system that can read and decode Ian's thoughts and translate them into signals tailored for different hand movements, which bypass his broken spinal cord.

The results of the research - published in the journal Nature - marks a step forward in neural bypass technology, which seeks to transform the lives of people with devastating spinal injuries.

Researchers say it could help patients with a wide range of disabilities, including victims of stroke and traumatic brain damage.

It is hoped the technology will become easier to operate in a few years and could even be incorporated into clothing.

I didn't think anything would happen in my life that would set me back and slow me down this much.

– Ian Burkhart

Ian was on a seaside holiday with friends when he dived into a powerful wave which slammed him into a hidden sand bar.

His spinal cord was snapped at the neck, leaving him a quadriplegic - paralysed in all four limbs.

Although he still has residual movements in the tops of his arms, but none below the elbow.

Ian after the accident in 2010

Ian's injury made him an ideal volunteer for US scientists who have been pioneering brain-computer interface technology and wanted to attempt the major step of restoring control over the wrist and fingers.

During a three-hour operation in April 2014, the team implanted a computer chip smaller than a pea into the "hand area" of the motor cortex of Ian's brain.

The system uses intelligent software to decode nerve signals from the brain generated when Ian imagines making specific movements.

The signals are translated into tiny electrical shocks fired into controlling muscles through 130 electrodes embedded in a sleeve worn on the forearm. The electrodes are not surgically implanted, but operate by sending impulses through the skin.

Ian took 15 months to learn to use the system, which allows him to make isolated finger movements and six different wrist and hand motions.

Today he is able to perform tasks that were previously out of the question, including holding a phone to his ear and swiping a credit card.

In the most dramatic test of his abilities, Ian played the Guitar Hero video game, which mimics strumming a real guitar.

Chad Bouton, head of neurotechnology and analytics at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York, said that the team were surprised by the degree of finger control achieved.

"We were not sure that this would be possible," he said. "This really exceeded our expectations."

This study marks the first time that a person living with paralysis has regained movement by using signals recorded from within the brain.

The research was paving the way to life-changing procedures that could not only help patients with spinal injuries, but also people disabled by strokes or traumatic head injuries.

– Chad Bouton, Feinstein Institute for Medical Research

Currently the technology is confined to the laboratory and involves invasive brain surgery, but scientists hope to make it far more user-friendly in the future.