A team of bio-medical engineers from Ohio State University published a paper in last month’s Nature outlining their success at restoring motor function in a quadriplegic man. The patient, Ian Burkhardt of Columbus, Ohio, was paralyzed from the neck down when he dove into shallow ocean waters in 2011. While this technology has previously been tested in primates, this breakthrough represents the first time this technology has been successfully implemented in a human test subject.
This procedure involves implanting specialized electrodes into a patient’s motor cortex, the area of the brain responsible for movement. Next, researchers map the neuro-electrical output produced in a patient’s brain as she imagines herself making specific movements with certain parts of her body. Advanced computer algorithms are used to record this electrical output, which can later be applied directly to the patient’s muscles through a “custom-built high-resolution neuromuscular electrical stimulation system” while bypassing damaged spinal nerves.
Burkhardt was able to regain some movement in his right hand, enabling him to perform basic tasks such as pouring liquid from a bottle and even playing the popular Guitar Hero video game. Potential future applications include brain-to-robot interfaces allowing users to control prosthetics or other robotics using only their minds. Already, researchers have been testing brain-controlled aerial drones controlled through similar neural interface technology as in the study above.
As neuroscience continues to further our understanding of our brains and how they control our bodies, new questions concerning the ethics of biotechnology must be asked. If we can develop a brain-to-robot interface, why not a brain-to-brain interface allowing us to “wear” another individual’s body through using a system similar to the one in this study? Who would be responsible for any acts carried out by the individual being controlled? For now, these questions can wait as these types of neural interfaces are still experimental and can only be implemented under tightly controlled laboratory conditions. Still, this breakthrough represents for one lucky and resilient man the restoration of the basic human freedom of mobility.