Photo by Time Tank Labs

TEDXCOLUMBUS: Decoding the Language of the Brain

On June 23, Ian Burkhart picked up a spoon, briefly, and then dropped it. It was the biggest moment of the last four years of his life—Burkhart is paralyzed. Now he’s regaining the use of his hand without a functioning spinal cord, with help from Chad Bouton.

Bouton is not telepathic, but if you let him open your skull, he can read your mind. He’s a research leader at Battelle, where he has spent the past 18 years pioneering medical technologies that have netted him 67 patents worldwide. About a decade ago, he began examining brain signals.

“How do you decode brain activity and interpret thoughts?” asks Bouton, the last speaker to take ownership of the big red dot. The first step was to implant a chip in the brain and analyze the signals; he spent several years working with people who suffered strokes, as well as one man with ALS, all of them paralyzed. But how do you decipher the language of the brain?

He employed a method of association by telling patients to think about a certain movement while analyzing the corresponding brain waves. Then he developed decoding algorithms to interpret the signals and employed a mathematical transformation to create a color-coded scan of brain activity. He shows a scan on the projector screen, each color relating to a different muscle movement. Red is rest, green is wrist extension, light blue is wrist flexion, and so on.

Once his team had learned how the brain communicates movement, they linked their software to people with paralysis who used their thoughts to move computer cursors or drive their wheelchairs. There was still untapped potential, though.

“With these folks all living with paralysis, they still couldn’t move,” Bouton says. “We still hadn’t given them that part of the technology.” The missing piece fell into place during the next project, dubbed Neurobridge. The idea for Neurobridge was based on the principle of a heart bypass procedure, in which surgeons circumvent bad sections of artery to get the cardiac system working better again. In his version, Bouton sought to bypass a patient’s broken spinal cord by using a microchip embedded in the motor center of the brain to send signals through Batelle’s decoding software and onto a forearm sleeve, which was studded with electrodes that stimulate muscle movement.

“We want this someday to be something that someone can use every day and you don’t need a team of scientists and engineers to be around.”

In partnership with doctors at the Wexner Medical Center, the Battelle team searched for an ideal patient to test the Neurobridge system. Eventually they found Burkhart, a young man from Dublin who was paralyzed from the chest down in a diving accident when he was 19.

“An accident like that where we have an injury to the brain or the spinal cord can happen to any of us at any moment,” Bouton says. He would know—when he was in graduate school, he was thrown to the concrete one night and suffered a brain injury. After two life-saving surgeries, he had to deal with aphasia—a condition that left him incapable of speaking more than a few words. He recovered after months of speech therapy, but it underscored the ever-present potential for severe brain trauma. “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about how lucky I was.”

Burkhart was not so lucky, though. Four years after his accident, his condition had only improved slightly, mostly through his ability to adapt rather than regain lost function. But he was fortunate enough to be chosen for the first-of-its-kind Neurobridge project. A tiny microchip was implanted in his brain, and his skull was fitted with a port to connect to the Battelle software. After several weeks of practicing virtually, he was able to use his thoughts to pick up the spoon.

Bouton cues the stage screen, and the audience sees a recent video of Burkhart picking up a cup, grasping it, and bringing it to his lips. Then Bouton says he has a special surprise, and Burkhart navigates his motorized wheelchair out onto the stage, a wiry antenna poking from the top of his head. Bouton takes a seat on a barstool, and the two talk about Burkhart’s experience of paralysis and technologically assisted movement. He is soft-spoken but articulate as he tells his story and answers Bouton’s questions.

Even with the revolutionary medical advancement, Burkhart has no permanent improvement—the system only works when he’s plugged in at a lab. The project is still in its research stage, years from any potential for commercialization, and Bouton says the technology needs to become smaller, more robust, and more reliable before it’s ready for the market.

“We want this someday to be something that someone can use every day, and you don’t need a team of scientists and engineers to be around,” he says. Ruth Milligan joins the two of them on stage, and she asks Burkhart a question about his journey. Then she closes the event: “Number six is in the books.”

The audience rises to a standing ovation while Bouton and Burkhart look out over the crowd, smiling—a man with big ideas, and the living proof that those ideas can change the world.