I Have a Computer Chip in My Brain That Reads My Thoughts

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On Friday, March 24, VICE on HBO will take you inside the exciting world of bionic technology, exploring the cutting edge ways in which humans are integrating computers into their bodies. The writer of this essay, Ian Burkhart, is one of world's foremost pioneers in this realm. Watch Ian's full story on VICE on HBO Friday at 7:30 or 11 PM.

I've always been fascinated with the promise of computers. Because of that, I make it a point to get the latest and greatest technology. Even as a kid, I was the one in the family who would set up our new electronics and computers. It's this lifelong passion that helped lead me to becoming a pioneer in bionic technology. Right now, I'm the only person on the planet who has a special computer chip implanted in my brain that can read my thoughts and send those signals through a port in my skull out to a computer, which can then send that information back to my body and make my body do stuff.

For the past three years, I've been using this groundbreaking technology, called NeuroLife, to bypass a spinal injury that left me with quadriplegia. Although I'm paralyzed from the chest down, when I'm hooked up to the computer, and the computer is connected to a special sleeve wrapped around my forearm, I can use my hands to pick up and put things down. The technology reanimates my arm and allows me to control it with my mind, similar to the the way I moved before I had my accident.

The accident happened in 2010, during my freshman year at Ohio University in Athens. A few days after my final exams, I headed out to the Outer Banks, North Carolina, for a brief vacation with my girlfriend at the time and some friends. I remember sitting behind the wheel on the nine-hour drive, thinking about all the fun we were going to have and relishing in the fact that we were going to spend a few days just kicking back and letting our hair down. When we finally arrived, we headed straight for the ocean to enjoy the waves.

I was so excited to be there that I was the first person to get into the water, even though it was pretty cold. I dove headfirst into a wave like I had done a million times before. But this time, the waves pushed me down, and the water below wasn't very deep. I hit my head on a sandbar. Immediately, I knew something was wrong because I couldn't get up out of the water. Thankfully, I wasn't by myself. My friends pulled me onto the shore.

At first, I was really optimistic. I thought that I'd be back doing whatever I wanted in about six weeks. I didn't really get a clear diagnosis until the morning after the accident. But when I did, it was pretty bleak. I was a quadriplegic: They said I could move my arms around a little bit, but I wouldn't be able to do much else. They said I would need help with everything, from getting dressed and eating to drinking or turning on the lights. "This is what it's going to be like for the rest of your life," they told me. That really hit home. But I took it as a challenge. I wanted to prove them wrong. I wanted to get as strong as I could and make my life the best that it could be in spite of my injury.

First, I had to relearn every aspect of my life to adapt to my paralysis. I did outpatient therapy with Ohio State University in Columbus because the campus was only 20 minutes from my parent's house. With support from the doctors there, I was able to start doing more for myself than initially expected. After a lot of work, I could eat on my own, I could control a wheelchair, and I could even drive a car.

But I realized that eventually the therapy that was helping me so much would have to end, due to my insurance. So I had to look for other options. I started asking my doctors, "What are some other ways for me to get therapy and continue getting better?" That led me to doing research studies that would enable me to continue therapy without having to rely on support from my insurance. These studies also exposed me to some of the most advanced technological advances in the world today.

Ohio State University doctors in the midst of a deep-brain implant surgery that is similar to the one Ian went through. Photo by Andrew Cagle

When I started with the NeuroLife research project, the doctors did not tell me the whole story. At first, they told me the study was focused on just using electronic stimulators on my muscles in my forearms. The stimulators were controlled by engineers using computers. I had heard of and even used electric stimulation before in physical therapy. But the system that was created by Battelle Memorial Institute and tested on me at OSU was more advanced than anything I'd seen: It actually allowed the doctors to pick smaller muscle segments they wanted to stimulate, so I could move subtle things like an individual finger, instead of my whole wrist.

Once we were able to see that my muscles could respond to stimulation, they hit me with the "million dollar question." The doctors said the rest of the plan was to take the stimulation system and connect it with a brain implant. With the implant, if I were to think, Open my hand, the computer could stimulate my arm in the right places and make my hand open. I'd be able to control my hand independently with my own mind, despite my injury.

At that point, I was really excited because I thought, OK, I might be able to regain use of my hands again. But the catch was that I'd have to have this sensor surgically implanted into my brain. And then, at the end of the study, I'd have to go through a second surgery to have it removed, because the implant is not designed to function forever. I had to seriously ask myself if this was something practical and reasonable for me to do. The thing that really made up my mind was the fact that I had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help push science and the technology further and possibly help other people out there living with paralysis.

The night before my brain surgery, they had me come into the hospital for some monitoring. I couldn't get any sleep because I was so excited about all the possibilities. I woke up the morning of the procedure and felt like a kid on Christmas. I was sedated during the surgery, so I don't remember much. But the doctors basically cut open my scalp, drilled a hole through my skull, and then placed the electrode on the surface of my brain. After the surgery, they didn't know if I would actually be able to control the system. We had to wait for everything to heal before we could actually plug my brain into the computer.

One of the weird things I had to get used to was having a port sticking out of the top of my head. It's an opening in my skin that goes down through my skull to the top of my brain, so obviously the list of potential problems is really long. Not to mention, it just felt strange. I had a hard time getting to sleep at night and putting on clothes. Just getting comfortable with that extra weight mounted on my head took a bit of time. But now it feels completely normal.

Ian Burkhart's muscle stimulating sleeve. Photo by Andrew Cagle

Once everything was settled and healed, we were able to plug the system in. At first, I was just controlling a virtual hand on a computer screen, not my actual hand. This helped me train and prepare for the real thing. The magic moment came when we finally connected my implant to the stimulator, creating the NeuroLife system. It allowed me to think about a movement, and then the computer would send those signals to my hand so that I could actually move. The first time I controlled my hand with my own brain through the system was mind-blowing. It reassured me that all the risk of the brain surgery was worth it and that the technology we were working on was headed in the right direction. It also motivated me to continue to work harder and harder at learning how to control my body with the system.

I've done a lot of cool stuff with this technology like play Guitar Hero. But the best moment so far was the first day I was able to pick up a bottle, pour the remains of that bottle into a smaller dish, and then pick up a stir stick and stir the contents around. It was huge for me because it was so practical, and I could see firsthand how this technology could really change the lives of paralyzed people. Unfortunately, this technology is still very much in the experimental stage. Although I'd love to have the functionality it provides in my home and everywhere else, I can only hook up to the system in a lab at OSU.

Right now, some of the biggest hurdles this technology faces before being ready for the masses are size, reliability, and convenience. One thing that could shift all of these would be to make the entire system wireless, so you could have a sensor in your brain talking to stimulators placed all over your body—not just your hands, but also your legs and feet.

I see this technology as something that you could use in your everyday life. If you do have a spinal cord injury, with this technology, you wouldn't have to rely on other people to do everything. You could live a more independent life. What we're working on with OSU and Battelle even has the potential to change the lives of people without disabilities. It could go beyond simply restoring functionality but also offering humans abilities they've never had. It's incredible to think that by being part of these studies, I've been on the cutting edge of all of these futuristic possibilities, and I can't wait to see what is yet to come.

Lead photo by Andrew Cagle

As told to Wilbert L. Cooper

Source: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/i-have-...

Huffington Post article about going back to school

This piece is part of a special brain health initiative curated by Dr. Ali Rezai, Director of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Medical Center’s Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. For more, visit The Huffington Post’s Brain Health page. Originally published for Huffington Post Voices on 12/22/2016. 

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A lot of people these days take a gap year between high school and college to learn, explore, and mature. Some take a year or two off to work various jobs and save enough to help pay down those student loans before they even start piling up. Others, like myself, have taken several years away from a full time college education for very different reasons that were totally unplanned, even unthinkable.

When I was 19 years old, I had an injury that forever changed my life. While swimming with buddies of mine, a diving accident left me with quadriplegia.

I don’t want to get into the ups and downs of the last six years of my life. Instead, I want to focus on what it means for me to go back to school.

This January 9, I’m enrolling to earn my bachelor’s degree at The Ohio State University. Like a lot of students, I’ll have my share of butterflies, concerns about whether I’ll get my top choices of classes, and what new friends I’ll be able to make.

It’s no secret, however, that for disabled people like myself a new semester presents a whole set of challenges that I previously never thought twice about. How am I going to get that door open? Are people going to see me as a fellow student or pity me? How much extra time do I have to devote to typing that term paper?

In case you’re wondering, yes, it takes a lot more effort and hours, but I’m able to type through a combination of voice technology, a virtual keyboard app I operate using my pinky, and using the back of my hand on top of a track ball mouse. In the big scheme of things, these are all minor issues that are easily overcome compared to what I’ve already been through.

So while I’m a bit nervous, what I’m really feeling is tremendous excitement about what lies ahead and how my education can truly open doors for me that I never thought possible.

In a way, I’ve never left OSU. For the last four years, I’ve been on campus three times a week, participating in a research study at the Wexner Medical Center at The Ohio State University. I don’t hesitate in describing myself as a human guinea pig, and am proud to play a role in advancing medical research by hooking up to a first-of-its-kind system with a brain implant and muscle stimulator developed by the Battelle Institute and the team at OSU led by Dr. Ali Rezai. In fact, thanks to their genius and hard work, I made history, regaining movement in my hand, enough to swipe a credit card, hold a glass, and, most exciting, play Guitar Hero.

But the time spent at the university was really less about developing a professional obsession with electrical engineering, or even surgery, and more about honing my personal skills and focusing on what’s most doable.

I’ve always been a practical and goal-oriented kind of guy, definitely less introspective than some people I know. In a way, that’s been a huge blessing, as it’s given me focus and can-do dedication. Yet I’ve also grown in many ways since my injury. One way I’ve grown is coming to realize that the people and professions that I value most are those that help other people. I wouldn’t be here without an amazing team of nurses, occupational and physical therapists, physicians, engineers, and, of course, my family and friends.

At one point in my life, I dreamed about running a video production house, or about taking my interest in business to the next level and becoming an entrepreneur or even joining my family’s business. But now, with the perspective of the injury in mind, I’ve fallen in love with a profession that many consider a bore: accounting. Although many thought I couldn’t pull it off after my injury, I’m getting on with my life plan by enrolling full time to become an accountant. For me, it’s less about the financial spreadsheets software and even tax preparation, and much more about truly connecting with other human beings at a very vulnerable place. Finances are something that many don’t even share with their partners. Probably more than anything, financial worries keep people up at night and produce stress that can lead to disease. In the world of business, accountants are really the first and last advisors you’ll ever need. Accounting is the ultimate in professional service acting as an intermediary between everyday life and financial health.

If I can take my affinity for people, numbers, and business, as well as my ability to quickly analyze a problem and just as quickly generate trust, I’ll be giving back in the best way I know how.

It’s been a hell of a detour, but I’m confident I’m going to be able to accomplish my goals. Now that I’m headed back to school, I’m psyched to get started.

NeuroLife Story on BigTen Network "Ohio State team restores motion to quadriplegic man's hand"

From John Tolley via BTN

Ohio State team restores motion to quadriplegic man's hand. Here's how: BTN LiveBIG

Ian Burkhart has a hole in his head. And that’s a good thing.

“We implanted a microchip in part of his brain that controls his movements, specifically his arm movements,” explains Dr. Ali Rezai, director of the Neurological Institute at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

The microchip is accessed via a port located on Burkhart’s head. Through this port, the microchip feeds brain signals to a computer that uses machine learning algorithms to decode the information. The information is then sent to a specially designed sleeve that allows Burkhart to move his hand. That’s not something he can usually do.

“Just after finishing my freshman year of college, I took a mistimed dive in the ocean and I immediately knew something was wrong,” says Burkhart. “I was diagnosed quadriplegic.”

That accident left Burkhart with slight use of his arms, but no control over the fine motor movements of the hand. Coincidentally, it was around the same time that Rezai and his colleagues at Wexner and the Battelle Memorial Institute were pondering how they could improve the quality of life for those affected by spinal cord injuries.

“This is a collaboration among a very large team,” notes Rezai. “We’ve been working together for the past five years trying to advance this technology. Physicians, neuroscientist, clinicians, software and coding specialist all working together to allow for the first time in the world a quadriplegic  who has no function in his hand the capability to move his hand under control of his mind.”

Currently, the team’s work is dependent on wires and thus bound to the lab – albeit one that is named for Burkhart. But progress is being made on a system that will be completely wireless, allowing Burkhart to field test the technology in his home.

For his part, Burkhart is happy to shoulder the burden and risk inherent in pioneering a technology that may not be perfected in his lifetime. For him, the project is about something much bigger.

“This is something that I’m not only doing just for me. I took this risk because I want to help push the ball further on this research and help future generations in their everyday lives.”

OSU Brain Health and Performance Summit

From OSU Wexner Medical Center "The Ohio State University Neurological Institute with the Department of Athletics invite you to explore the latest discoveries and innovations that tie brain health to performance, readiness, recovery, and healing.

At long last, cutting-edge brain research and sophisticated technology are coming together to produce innovative tools that have the potential to optimize brain health, performance, recovery, and function everywhere from the football field to the battlefield to the boardroom.

Join our presenters as they discuss the latest findings in neuroscience, neurophysiology, and neurotechnology and how this research is having tangible impacts in a variety of ways including virtual reality, gaming, simulation, wearable sensors, assessment methods and a wide variety of new applications. The summit will host scientists, technologists, and entrepreneurs who are transforming how we comprehend, preserve, build, and enhance brain-body function."

 

 https://brainhealthsummit2016.sched.org/speaker/ian_burhart.1uy7i7qw

Media Coverage on Nature Article

After over a year and a half of not being able to share our work, the paper, Restoringcortical control of functional movement in a human with quadriplegia, has been posted to Nature! We have had some amazing publicity and you can find the latest retweeted on my Twitter or some highlights here:

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  • The New York Times (National) on 4/14
  • The Wallstreet Journal (National) on 4/14
  • Washington post (National) on 4/14
  • Toronto Star (Canada) on 4/14
  • Daily Mail (London) on 4/14