Burkhart’s device was inserted into his brain about nine years ago, several years after he was unable to move his limbs after a diving accident. He volunteered to test the device, which enabled him to move his hand and fingers. But after seven and a half years it had to be removed.
His particular implant was a tiny set of 100 electrodes carefully placed in a part of the brain that helps control movement. It worked by recording brain activity and sending those recordings to a computer where they were processed by an algorithm. This was connected to a sleeve of electrodes worn on the arm. The idea was to convert thoughts about movement into electrical signals that would trigger movement.
Burkhart was the first to receive the implant in 2014. he was 24 years old. After recovering from 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 that came out of his head.
“It worked really well,” Burkhart says. “We started with just opening and closing my hand, but after a while we were able to do individual finger movements.” He was eventually able to combine the movements and control the grip strength. He even got to play Guitar Hero.
“There was a lot I was able to do, which was exciting,” he says. “But it was also still limited.” Not only was he able to use the device in the lab, but he could only perform lab tasks. “Any action we would take would be simplified,” he says.
For example, he could pour out a bottle, but it was only a bottle with beads because the researchers didn’t want liquids around the electrical equipment. “It was kind of scary, it didn’t change anything in my life because I saw how useful it could be,” she says.
In any case, the device worked so well that the team extended the trial period. Burkhart was originally scheduled to have the implant for 12 to 18 months, he says. “But it was all really successful … so we were able to go on for quite a while after that.” The trial was extended annually, and Burkhart continued to visit the lab twice a week.