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A ‘jumper cable’ for the brain helps a paralyzed man regain hand movement

Five years ago, Ian Burkhart broke his neck at the beach, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. Now he has regained some movement in his hands and fingers thanks to technology that communicates his thoughts directly to his muscles. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the big breakthrough in neural engineering.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, first, another science story, this one looking at promising new research in the treatment of spinal cord injuries and other causes of paralysis.

    Jeffrey Brown has that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Five years ago, as a college freshman, Ian Burkhart dove into a wave at a North Carolina beach and broke his neck on the sandy ocean floor, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.

    Now, in a medical first, he has regained some movement in his hands and fingers through technology that communicates his thoughts directly to his hand muscles. It uses a tiny chip inserted in his brain and an electronic sleeve.

    Burkhart has learned to perform simple tasks, even playing a guitar video game.

  • IAN BURKHART, Spinal Injury Victim:

    It is just something that is so fluid. It's just kind of like it was before I had my injury, where I just think about what I want to do, and now I can do it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The work by researchers at Ohio State University and Battelle Memorial Institute is not a cure for paralysis, and Burkhart must be connected to computers in a lab in order to use his hands. But it's another big advance in the field of neural engineering.

    And science correspondent Miles O'Brien has been following these developments, and joins me now.

    Miles, this is essentially a new way of getting directly from the brain to the hand?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Exactly, Jeff. Think of it as a jumper cable. His brain is fine. His mysteries are still there. The nerves are intact, except for where the injury is.

    And if you can create a way to bypass where that injury is in the spinal cord, you can do wonderful things. At the core of this is significant development in recent years in understanding how our brains work, and reading the language of the brain, interpreting it, and, in short order, turning that into action which can lead to movement of muscles. It's nothing short of remarkable.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So we're talking about Ian Burkhart is moving his hands by, in a way, thinking about it. But that involves this computer chip and training it to interpret his brain, in a sense.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes, it's not unlike training voice recognition.

    Many of us are familiar with that. What they do is, they — using advanced MRI equipment, they have him think about moving what is missing, or, in his case, what he's unable to move because it's paralyzed. And it lights up certain parts of the brain. You teach the computer to understand those patterns, artificial intelligence, pattern recognition.

    And, eventually, it understands what the brain is telling it to do and can fire electrodes which will in turn move his muscles.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And through this electronic sleeve, right?

    Explain — explain a little bit more how it moves, how it works.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, so, they have got the sensors embedded in his brain. Wires come out of his head, through a computer, out of the computer, another set of wires to the sleeve which is attached to his paralyzed hand. The sleeve has electrodes in it which engage the muscles themselves and fire the muscles.

    They wanted to do it in a noninvasive way. Already, they were putting this chip in his brain, and so they wanted to minimize the invasiveness of this as they performed this experiment. Ultimately, as we look toward making this a practical solution for those who are paralyzed and giving them more movement, you would want to get into a situation where everything is embedded and, through wireless control potentially, embedded electrodes in the muscles themselves would control the movement.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes, because, right now, it can only be done in a lab, right, with him wired up?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Exactly.

    And what he's doing is pushing technology forward. He's a remarkable young man. And this is something that doesn't really affect his quality of life on a day-to-day basis, but it will affect others down the road.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, a big step. How hard is it to get to that further goal, and how big a step would this be, do you think?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Not insignificant.

    A couple big things. First of all, there's a bandwidth issue. His brain is generating about a gigabyte of data every three minutes, so you have got a lot of data that you have to handle wirelessly, connecting it from the brain down to the limb that you want to see move.

    And the other thing is, the body correctly identifies these implants as foreign objects and attacks them. And so, over time, what we have discovered in previous experiments with people who have had similar implants, they lose their efficacy because the body goes after them.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Miles, I want to switch gears. I want to ask you about another thing that broke this afternoon that you have been covering for us.

    It's Zika. And, as you know, late this afternoon, the CDC concludes that Zika causes microcephaly and other birth defects. What's the significance there?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, this is just kind of dotting the I, crossing the T.

    What the CDC did was, they did a study of the studies that exist and concluded with some finality that there is this connection, causation, we like to call it in science, between Zika and microcephaly. Couple that with the fact that CDC officials are now talking about possibly other birth defects linked to Zika, vision-related, an M.S.-like disease, premature births.

    And then add to that the fact that the spread seems to be looming into perhaps as many as 30 U.S. states, and, really, you don't see a lot of encouraging news anywhere on the Zika front. And the administration, the CDC is asking Congress for some emergency funding to try to nip this thing in the bud, and now would be the time to do that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes, clearly some new urgency here, and clearly some attempts to get funding, which would do what exactly? Do you know?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, the more that they can get out there and get public education in the mix, more studies to draw these links, more efforts to combat it, and make people aware, as much as anything, that when a woman is pregnant, in particular, that being near these particular mosquitoes, this Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is now spreading into our part of the world, can be a very dangerous thing.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, science correspondent Miles O'Brien, thanks very much.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You're welcome, Jeff.

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