Columbus, Ohio (April 27, 2020)—It was the summer of 2010, and Ian Burkhart was sizing up the waves as he swam in the ocean off the coast of North Carolina. He had traveled there on a vacation with a group of friends to unwind after wrapping up his freshman year studying video production at Ohio University. He prepared to dive into an oncoming wave and tumbled into the water. Burkhart was a capable swimmer, but the ocean is unpredictable. The wave slammed him into a sandbar—and that’s when he realized he couldn’t feel his body.
Unable to move, Burkhart was at the mercy of the ocean. His friends quickly realized something was wrong and pulled him from the water. He was brought to a nearby hospital where he underwent emergency surgery. Once he was stable, the doctors gave Burkhart the bad news: His spinal cord had been severed. He could no longer walk, the range of motion in his arms was limited to his shoulder and bicep, and he had almost completely lost his sense of touch.
After spending years working to adjust to his new reality, Burkhart enrolled in an experimental program called NeuroLife at Battelle, a nonprofit research organization in Ohio. The plan was to implant a small computer chip in his brain and use it to improve the range of motion in his arms and to artificially recreate his sense of touch. It was a long shot, but Burkhart says the potential upside was worth it. “It was a lot to consider, but paralysis wasn’t something I was ready to settle with,” he says. Now, six years after starting the study, Burkhart is able to feel objects and has enough control of his arm to shred on Guitar Hero.
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