Burkhart’s device was implanted in his brain nine years ago, several years after he was unable to move his limbs following a scuba diving accident. He volunteered to try out a device that allowed him to move his hand and fingers. But after seven and a half years it had to be removed.
His particular implant was a small set of 100 electrodes carefully inserted into the part of the brain that helps control movement. It worked by recording brain activity and sending these recordings to a computer where they were processed by an algorithm. This was connected to an electrode sleeve worn on the arm. The idea was to translate thoughts about movement into electrical signals that would cause movement.
Burkhart was the first to receive the implant, in 2014; he was 24 years old. After he recovered from the surgery, he began a training program to learn how to use it. Three times a week for about a year and a half, he visited a lab where the implant could be connected to a computer via a cable coming out of his head.
“It worked really well,” Burkhart says. “We started by just being able to open and close our hand, but after a while we were able to do individual finger movements.” Eventually he was able to combine moves and control the power of his grip. He even knew how to play Guitar Hero.
“I was able to do a lot and it was exciting,” he says. “But it was also limited.” Not only could he only use the device in the lab, but he could only perform lab tasks. “Any activity we would do would be simplified,” he says.
For example, he could spill a bottle, but it was only a bottle with beads because the researchers didn’t want liquid around the electrical equipment. “It was a shame that things didn’t change in my life, because I saw how good it could be,” he says.
In any case, the device worked so well that the team extended the trial. Burkhart was originally scheduled to have the implant in place for 12 to 18 months, he says. “But everything was really successful … so we were able to continue for quite a while after that.” The review period continued every year, and Burkhart continued to visit the lab twice a week.