In a spinal-cord injury, the pathway between the brain and the muscles is interrupted, and signals from the brain make it only as far as the damage in the cord. Many treatments focus on attempting to repair that path, but researchers at Ohio State University and the Battelle Memorial Institute did something different: They bypassed the spinal cord completely. This year the team, lead by Ali Rezai at Ohio State, published the results of a study in which they implanted a small chip in the motor cortex of a twenty-four-year-old quadriplegic. As the patient attempted to replicate basic hand movements he saw on a screen, the chip recorded the neural firing patterns for each gesture. When the patient’s forearm was wrapped in a sleeve of electrodes and he was hooked up to the computer, he could think of a movement, and the chip would recognize the neural pattern and broadcast the appropriate signals directly to the electrodes, moving his hand in response. Using the new technology, the patient was able to swipe a credit card, play Guitar Hero, and stir cream and sugar into a drink. And all he had to do was think about it.
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