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Algorithms Advance Assistive Control for Spinal Cord Injury

Testing Neurolife system

Ian Burkhart testing the NeuroLife system (Battelle Memorial Institute)

24 September 2018. A system to control movements of an assistive sleeve is shown in lab tests to enable a person with no use of his arms and legs due to spinal cord injury to accurately grasp and release objects. A description of advances in the control system and the case study appear in today’s issue of the journal Nature Medicine (paid subscription required).

The journal article outlines the case of Ian Burkhart, an individual who became a quadriplegic due to a spinal cord injury suffered in a diving accident. Battelle Memorial Institute, a research institute in Columbus, Ohio is collaborating with Ohio State University medical center, also in Columbus, to design a system that connects the brain to a system for controlling an assistive sleeve on an individual’s forearm to stimulate appropriate muscles to move the person’s wrist, hand, and fingers. In June 2014, Science & Enterprise reported on a test of an earlier version of the system.

Burkhart is testing the system, which enables him to give commands to the sleeve with his thoughts. A tiny chip called the Utah Array, made by Blackrock Microsystems is implanted in his motor cortex, the part of the brain controlling voluntary movements. The Utah Array is designed to record neural activity in the brain, directed toward nerve cells in peripheral tissue, including muscles in the arm. The Battelle/Ohio State NeuroLife system captures signals from the Utah Array chip, then with machine-learning algorithms decodes and transmits the decoded signals in the form of commands to the assistive forearm cuff.

Burkhart is the one person enrolled so far in a clinical trial testing the capabilities of NeuroLife. In results published in 2016, the system showed the ability to achieve continuous control of his 6 hand and wrist motions, as well as moving individual fingers, with neural signals sent from the brain. The new findings, say the authors, show a faster and more accurate system, as well as the ability to update itself without supervision or daily recalibration. In addition, Burkhart demonstrated the system’s feasibility by accurately grasping and releasing 3 different objects, directed by commands from his brain. These capabilities, say the authors, are intended to meet functions described in surveys conducted earlier with potential users of the system that show a desire for greater accuracy, little if any daily set-up, quick response times, and multiple functions.

“Our paper,” says statistician and lead author Michael Schwemmer in a Battelle statement, “shows that neural decoders can be designed to help meet these potential end-user performance expectations and advance the clinical translation of the technology.” Battelle filed patent applications for the neural bridging and assistive sleeve technologies, with co-authors David Friedenberg and Gaurav Sharma, Battelle statistician and research scientist respectively, listed as inventors.

In the following video, Burkhart describes the system and the impact it’s had on his life.

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