COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — German Aldana was 16 years old when he was involved in a car crash that changed his life.
"I wasn't wearing my seatbelt," Aldana said. "Next think I know was I had a spinal cord injury, C4. So, I'm a quadriplegic."
He says he's faced a lot of challenges since his injury.
"You know, you have frustrations because you used to be independent," Aldana said.
On Wednesday, Aldana was able to regain a sense of independence while also taking part in a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Aldana, who is a Miami Project to Cure Paralysis research participant, drove a NASCAR racecar around Pikes Peak International Raceway in Colorado Springs by himself using his brain.
"What we're doing here today is we're watching our drive, who is spinal cord injured, drive a 850 horsepower NASCAR Cup car around this track hands-free, feet-free with our specialized helmet, but throttle control is entirely with the brain," explained Dr. Scott Falci, neurosurgeon at Swedish Medical Center’s Falci Institute for Spinal Cord Injuries.
Falci is also the founder of Falci Adaptive Motorsports (FAM), a nonprofit organization that brings adaptive motorsports to individuals with mobility impairments.
Aldana manipulated the racecar's throttle through a microchip implanted on the surface of his brain.
"[The microchip] can pick up electrical changes from the brain. It sends a signal down a cable that's implanted underneath his skin that goes to a little microprocessor," Dr. Falci explained. "So anytime our driver, German, thinks "throttle on," the computers and the algorithm know to send it to the throttle of the car."
Dr. Falci says this is only the beginning.
"If we could get somebody performing all the aspects of a racecar — throttle, brake, steer right, steer left — we could apply that to any system," he said.
"I did not think I would drive a car," Aldana said. "It didn't cross my mind, you know. But driving it myself and seeing what I could do, the fear just went away."
The Miami Project hopes this technology can be developed to help those with disabilities have more independence, from driving electric wheelchairs and controlling robotic prosthetics to controlling home communication systems.