Ian Burkhart was just 19 when he had an accident that left most of his body paralyzed. “I kept asking the doctors, ‘Is there anything that you guys have heard of that will be able to help?’” he said.
NeuroLife is an experimental device that can best be described as an artificial link between brain and body. It’s one of a number of paralysis-reversing endeavors underway in which brain waves are decoded and used to move a paralyzed limb, either by a robotic prosthetic or direct electrical stimulation.
The device was developed at Battelle, a decades-old applied-science nonprofit in Columbus, Ohio, which helped create the Xerox machine, cruise control and no-melt chocolate. When Battelle needed a test subject for NeuroLife in 2012, Ian was a lucky find: still young with strong muscles—and willing to have a chip implanted in his brain. Part of the housing protrudes from his skull, allowing him to be plugged in as if he were a character in “The Matrix.”
“Independence is my No. 1 goal,” Burkhart, now 27, said. “I rely on other people to help me every single day—to help me get dressed, get transferred into my wheelchair, brush my hair. So any bit of independence that I can gain back for myself is huge.”
For now, NeuroLife is confined to the lab. The system is too bulky to be portable and requires an hour of work by two specialists to get up and running. But Battelle hopes to turn it into a portable, commercially available product within five to seven years.
“The ultimate goal of this project is to develop and mature this technology to a point where someone can actually take it home with them and use it for their activities of daily living,” said Dr. Gaurav Sharma, lead investigator on the study. “Ideally, the brain-computer interface will be wireless, and there will not be a cord coming out of Ian’s head. I also envision that we will be able to make our algorithms more portable and able to run on a small tablet, or even your phone.”
Farther out, the NeuroLife team hopes to be able to incorporate touch feedback, so users can feel how hard they’re gripping an object. Burkhart has even greater hopes. “Working toward different muscle groups in different parts of your body—and just being able to control more of your body that I thought I had lost forever—is something that’s really exciting,” he said.