A study published recently in the journal Nature details the NeuroLife device, which is described as an electronic neural bypass for spinal cord injuries that reconnects the brain directly to muscles and enables movement of a paralyzed limb using one’s thoughts.

The device was developed by a team at Battelle, based in Columbus, Ohio, after more than a decade of work.

A team of physicians and neuroscientists from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, led by Ali Rezai, MD, and Jerry Mysiw, MD, conducted the clinical study, testing the device on participant Ian Burkhart, a 24-year-old quadriplegic from Dublin, Ohio.

The neural bypass technology that enables the device to work combines algorithms that learn and decode a user’s brain activity and a high-definition muscle stimulation sleeve that translates neural impulses from the brain and transmits new signals to the paralyzed limb, explains a media release from Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

“In the 30 years I’ve been in this field, this is the first time we’ve been able to offer realistic hope to people who have very challenging lives,” says Mysiw, chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Ohio State. “What we’re looking to do is help these people regain more control over their bodies.”

In April 2014, Rezai—a neurosurgeon at Wexner—implanted a computer chip smaller than a pea onto the motor cortex of Burkhart’s brain.

Following the 3-hour procedure, teams from Ohio State and Battelle worked together to figure out the correct sequence of electrodes to stimulate to allow Burkhart to move his fingers and hand functionally. Burkhart also worked for months using the electrode sleeve to stimulate his forearm to rebuild his atrophied muscles so they would be more responsive to the electric stimulation, per the release.

“It’s amazing to see what he’s accomplished,” said Nick Annetta, electrical engineering lead for Battelle’s team on the project, in the release. “Ian can grasp a bottle, pour the contents of the bottle into a jar, and put the bottle back down. Then he takes a stir bar, grips that, and then stirs the contents of the jar that he just poured and puts it back down. He’s controlling it every step of the way.”

“During the last decade, we’ve learned how to decipher brain signals in patients who are completely paralyzed and now, for the first time, those thoughts are being turned into movement,” states study co-author Chad Bouton, who directed the research team at Battelle before he joined the New York-based Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, in the release.

Bouton adds that findings from the study suggest that signals recorded from within the brain can be re-routed around an injury to the spinal cord, allowing restoration of functional movement and even movement of individual fingers.

Rezai and the team from Battelle agree that, in the future, this technology could be used to help patients affected by various brain and spinal cord injuries, such as strokes and traumatic brain injury, to be more independent and functional.

“We’re hoping that this technology will evolve into a wireless system connecting brain signals and thoughts to the outside world to improve the function and quality of life for those with disabilities,” Rezai states in the release. “One of our major goals is to make this readily available to be used by patients at home.”

How has participating in the research study affected Burkhart? He shares in the release that, “[It] has changed me in the sense that I have a lot more hope for the future now. I always did have a certain level of hope, but now I know, firsthand, that there are going to be improvements in science and technology that will make my life better.”

[Source: Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center]