Man paralyzed from the waist up uses microchip implanted in brain to drive race car

FOUNTAIN, Colorado (CBS4) – The revving engine of a racing car outside Fountain on Wednesday morning was the sound of a major breakthrough in technology that could one day change the lives of people with reduced mobility. The man behind the wheel of the 850 horsepower NASCAR Cup race car was German Aldana Zuniga of Miami. Although he was paralyzed from the waist down, he used a microchip implanted in his brain to drive lap after lap.

(credit: CBS)

“It’s an incredible experience. Since my accident, I have no mobility below the waist, so this is my first time driving a car,” Zuniga said.

Nine years after a life-changing car accident, Zuniga used her thoughts to drive on Wednesday. It’s a breakthrough technology pioneered by a team led by Dr. Scott Falci, a Colorado neurosurgeon at Health ONE’s Falci Institute for Spinal Cord Injury. The group also included Dr Harry Direen, an electrical engineer, and Kevin Davis of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

For more than a year, they and others worked tirelessly to get Zuniga to communicate between a microchip on his brain and a computer in the car.

“Electrical changes are picked up on this electrode, run through a cable under its skin to a small computer processor,” Falci said.

“When the computer recognizes that particular fingerprint, it knows to send the signal to our race car’s computer and that computer knows to send it to the throttle and actuate the throttle,” Falci said.

For now, the technology allows Zuniga to use his thoughts to start the accelerator and keep it at a steady pace. He can steer with a specialized headset that records his head movements, as well as slow down using a tube attached to the headset called a sip-n-puff input.

Thanks to all of this, a task that was once unthinkable is now possible with focus and practice.

“It’s amazing to think about being in the car, especially so fast. To be in it and see how smooth you go down the track and it responds to what you think is just amazing,” Zuniga said.

According to Falci, the future possibilities of this technology are equally exciting.

“Our goal isn’t to make race car drivers spinal cord injured patients, it’s really to apply that to real life situations,” Falci said.

“We can potentially use it to drive an electric wheelchair, a golf cart, control a robotic arm, control an exoskeleton, control an implanted medical device. Once we develop this science, this science can be used for all types of systems,” he said.

It’s a finish line that Zuniga is eager to help cross.

“Technology is advancing, so we have to help contribute to it and make it accessible to everyone,” Zuniga said.

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