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A Little Chip Goes a Long Way

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“The best among them [scientists] move deep into a wilderness region where they know almost nothing, where the very tools and techniques needed to clear the wilderness, to bring order to it, do not exist.”, writes John M.Barry in The Great Influenza, “…In the wilderness the scientist must create…everything. It is grunt work, tedious work that begins with figuring out what tools one needs and then making them. ” Areas in science have always been a topic of exploring and advancements. As Barry said, ingenuity and constant questioning are a necessity to those who want to discover breakthroughs in the subject. Alexander Fleming found that pencillin prevented the spread of bacteria on a hunch; genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are now a commonality due to improvements in gene splicing. Now, a paralyzed man can move his hand after rendering it useless for four years.

Ian Burkhart’s twitter biography states, “life rolls on”. He seems to have an optimistic and carefree attitude towards his physical state. Burkhart is confined to a wheelchair, lacking the ability to move his arms and legs. As a college freshman would, Burkhart had an adventurous perspective and decided to dive into the mild waves of the popular Outer Banks in North Carolina with friends. In a mind-boggling phenomenon, he dove into the waves at exactly the wrong moment. After that devastating incident, he became a quadriplegic.

While paralysis is not as popular of a research topic as cancer or HIV, it has its fair share of grants and plenty of areas to explore. While scientists have found the cause behind paralysis,  (damage to the nervous system, strokes, or degenerative ailments such as ALS and sclerosis) a cure has not been discovered. However, as of April 13th, 2016, researchers have come shockingly close.

Approximately two years ago, Burkhart undertook a serious proposition; scientists implanted a chip, no larger than a penny, in his brain as part of a unprecedented study. Those involved in the grand experiment programmed the chip so it can effectively scan and analyze Burkhart’s thoughts and turn them into actions by transmitting signals to a sleeve on his arm. Miraculously, he is now capable of moving his hands. Even more shocking is the fact that his movements are not as robotic as researches predicted; Burkhart can smoothly swipe his credit card through the card reader, lift a coffee mug to his mouth with ease and can even play Guitar Hero.

Once again, although the development of the chip and its results are a groundbreaking discovery, it is definitely not a cure for paralysis. More research needs to be gathered before any doctors can officially use this procedure to assist the paralyzed. This study lends a promising cure but it also lends hope to those who lost their freedom to move, a freedom so many take for granted.