In high school, Ian Burkhart enjoyed playing lacrosse and was highly involved in his school’s video productions program. Following graduation, Burkhart chose to go to Ohio University to pursue a career in video productions and even played on the club lacrosse team. However, Burkhart’s life shifted when an accident on vacation caused him to become permanently paralyzed. Now a student at The Ohio State University, he is contributing to significant advancements in the medical eld by being part of a research study for patients with spinal cord injuries.
After his freshman year of college, Burkhart went on a summer vacation with his friends. While swimming in the ocean, Burkhart dove into a sandbar, causing him to become immediately paralyzed on impact. Later, he learned from doctors that he had sustained a C5 spinal cord injury, likely not able to regain movement of his arms, hands or legs.
Following the accident, Burkhart focused on rehabilitation in order to strengthen his muscles. He then moved back to his hometown in Ohio to
continue rehab at The Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State. Though doctors continued to see improvements in his mobility, Burkhart was not satisfied with the results.
“I still wasn’t happy with the results so I was always looking for more opportunities,” Burkhart said. “I kept bugging my doctors and therapists, asking what else was out there and what else I could do.”
Soon after, Burkhart became eligible for a new study to be conducted by researchers at The Ohio State Neurological Institute which involved using neuro-technology to control a patient’s limbs who was previously
paralyzed. Despite promising results, both Burkhart and his family had doubts that it was worth it, as the study required patients to undergo brain surgery.
“The biggest thing was convincing them that it was something safe to do,” Burkhart said. “I was the eighth person in the world to have ever received this implant. It had been done before just not for this specific use case.”
Burkhart ultimately chose to participate in the study, knowing the solution was greater than himself.
“If I said no to this, I would really be letting down someone in a different part of the country or part of the world that didn’t get this opportunity,” Burkhart said.
In partnership with Battelle, a global research company focused on science and technology, doctors at the Wexner Center implanted a chip into Burkhart’s brain. They then tested to see whether the signals in Burkhart’s brain could be processed by a computer, surpassing his damaged spinal cord and ultimately allowing him to move his hand.
In addition to this research, Burkhart is also a full-time student at The Ohio State University, pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting at the Fisher College of Business. He hopes to continue his passion for accounting by working for a small accounting firm in the future.
“[Accounting is] a very personable job because if you think about it, you’re asking someone to give over all of their financial secrets, something that they may not even share with their spouse,” Burkhart said. “They trust you.”
In order to increase awareness about his condition, Burkhart has been a speaker at numerous conferences throughout the U.S., acting as the bridge between his research at Ohio State and awareness for medical advancements involving his research study. Burkhart has also started his own nonprofit organization to donate money and equipment for people with paralysis. So far, he has raised over $60,000 and plans on growing this nonprofit following his graduation.
The research Burkhart is participating in is ongoing, and Burkhart is now starting to see the effect it’s having on the medical community.
“I don’t think anyone on the project really knows the full impact yet,
but it’s pretty amazing what we have been able to do.”
“The initial goal of this study between the OSU Neurological Institute and Battelle was to show that it is possible to bypass an injured spinal cord with neuro-technology and return control of paralyzed limbs to a person with paralysis,” Marcie Bockbrader, Residency Research Director for the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, said. “Now that Ian has successfully done that, we are focusing on problems that keep Ian from using this neuro-technology in his daily life.”
Burkhart is the first person in the world to have been able to move his own hand through the use of an external computer. Before, advanced studies only allowed patients to transfer thoughts from their head to movement through a robotic arm.
As the study has evolved over the past four and a half years, researchers have tested Burkhart’s ability to move everyday objects such as blocks and dice. They have also designed more practical applications of the technology, allowing Burkhart to play guitar hero or swipe a credit card through a card reader. All of these experiments have contributed to the overall goal of allowing people with paralysis to have functional use of their arms and hands.