When the spinal cord is severed in an injury, it's generally a catastrophe.
The spinal cord is the superhighway of the nervous system, sending commands from the brain to the appendages. Depending on where a spinal cord injury takes place, different "exits" on the highways are blocked off, severely impacting movement. An injury high on the neck can leave a person unable to use her arms or legs. Lower down, and the lower extremities might be affected.
The dream of spinal cord injury patients and their doctors is to find ways to reestablish those connections.
Scientists at Ohio State University and Battelle, a research nonprofit, have published the results of an incredible trial that may lend some hope. No, they're not announcing a breakthrough in healing the actual spinal cord (though other doctors are making advances in that area). Instead, they're saying they've found a way to bypass it all together.
Check it out in this video, produced by the Verge, of a patient regaining the ability to play Guitar Hero.
They've built a device that takes signals directly from a patient's brain and relays them directly to a patient's arm muscles, which are activated by electrodes that make the muscles contract. The device — a chip implanted near the left motor cortex — is called the Neurobridge, and the article in Nature reports it can restore some function in grip and dexterity.
The patient in this study is a 24-year-old quadriplegic named Ian Burkhart, who severed his spinal cord during a vacation to North Carolina's Outer Banks in 2010 when he dove into a sandbar in the ocean. The paralysis, according to a 2014 Slate profile of Burkhart, was instant.
With practice — and complicated computer calibrations — Burkhart has learned to direct his thoughts to move his muscles. The device does not restore feeling, just movement. So it's like turning the arm that's already on his body into a robotic arm.
"In this study, for the first time, a human with quadriplegia regained volitional, functional movement through the use of intracortically [i.e., brain] recorded signals linked to neuromuscular stimulation in real-time," the study's authors write in Nature.
The result: It's like they've moved his spinal cord injury down from his neck to his upper back, where it's less crippling. Before the implant, he could only move his shoulder muscles. Now he can manipulate his fingers. It's a small improvement, but it's something that can greatly increase a patient's ability to interface with the world.
In addition to playing Guitar Hero (no mention of his score, however), the doctors found that Burkhart was able to grasp a glass jar, stir its contents, and pour liquid from it.
According to the New York Times, the doctors involved say more work will be needed to make this a practical solution for paralysis patients. Right now, Burkhart can only use the system while in the lab. And while the results are promising, a marketable device would ideally establish a wireless connection between the brain and the arm.
"The first time being able to move my hand — it was a big shock," Burkhart says in a video produced by Nature. "It was something that I hadn't moved for three and a half years at that point. Now it's something that's so fluid, it's like before I had my injury."