by Lorenzo Tanos
The mind-controlled robotic arm of Pennsylvania man Nathan Copeland hasn’t just gotten the sense of touch. It’s also got to shake the hand of the U.S. President himself, Barack Obama.
Copeland, 30, was part of a groundbreaking research project involving researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In this experiment, Copeland’s brain was implanted with microscopic electrodes — a report from the Washington Post describes the tiny particles as being “smaller than a grain of sand.” With the particles implanted into the cortex of the man’s brain, they then interacted with his robotic arm. This allowed Copeland to gain some feeling in his paralyzed right hand’s fingers, as the process worked around the spinal cord damage that robbed him of the sense of touch.
More than a decade had passed since Copeland, then a college student in his teens, had suffered his injuries in a car accident. The wreck had resulted in tetraplegia, or the paralysis of both arms and legs, though it didn’t completely rob the Western Pennsylvania resident of the ability to move his shoulders. He then volunteered in 2011 for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center project, a broader research initiative with the goal of helping paralyzed individuals feel again. The Washington Post describes this process as something “even more difficult” than helping these people move again.
For Nathan Copeland, the robotic arm experiment has proven to be a success, as he’s regained the ability to feel most of his fingers. He told the Washington Post on Wednesday that the type of feeling does differ at times, but he can “tell most of the fingers with definite precision.” Likewise, UPMC biomedical engineer Robert Gaunt told the publication that he felt “relieved” that the project allowed Copeland to feel parts of the hand that had no feeling for the past 10 years.
Prior to this experiment, mind-controlled robotic arm capabilities were already quite impressive, but lacking one key ingredient – the sense of touch. These prosthetics allowed people to move objects around, but since the individuals using the arms didn’t have working peripheral nerve systems, they couldn’t feel the sense of touch, and movements with the robotic limbs were typically mechanical in nature. But that’s not the case with Nathan Copeland, according to UPMC’s Gaunt.
“With Nathan, he can control a prosthetic arm, do a handshake, fist bump, move objects around,” Gaunt observed. “And in this (study), he can experience sensations from his own hand. Now we want to put those two things together so that when he reaches out to grasp an object, he can feel it. … He can pick something up that’s soft and not squash it or drop it.”
But it wasn’t just ordinary handshakes that Copeland was sharing on Thursday. On that day, he had exchanged a handshake and fist bump with President Barack Obama, who was in Pittsburgh for a White House Frontiers Conference. And Obama appeared to be suitably impressed with what Gaunt and his team had achieved, as it allowed Copeland’s robotic arm and hand to have “pretty impressive” precision.
“When I’m moving the hand, it is also sending signals to Nathan so he is feeling me touching or moving his arm,” said Obama.
Unfortunately, Copeland won’t be able to go home with his specialized prosthesis. In a report from the Associated Press, he said that the experiment mainly amounts to having “done some cool stuff with some cool people.” But he nonetheless remains hopeful, as he believes that his experience with the robotic arm will mark some key advances in the quest to make paralyzed people regain their natural sense of touch.