Ten years ago, Nathan Copeland was paralyzed from the chest down, losing his sense of touch in his fingers after breaking his neck in a car crash.
Now, in a medical first, Copeland finally regained his sense of touch with the help of a robotic arm connected to four microelectrode arrays embedded in the sensory cortex of his brain.
A team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center achieved this breakthrough by identifying, through imaging techniques, the areas in his brain that control the feelings in his palm and fingers. They then implanted arrays of electrodes to these areas, which are in turn linked to an external computer via a socket in his skull. The computer is then connected to sensors in his robotic arm.
When the sensors in his fingers and arm are touched, they send the information to the computer and the connected electrodes zap the corresponding areas in his brain. Voila! Artificial touch.
The direct neural connection not only allows Copeland to feel when something touches the robotic hand, he can also move it with his thoughts. Although it took Copeland a month of training before he learned to control the bionic appendage, he can now feel sensations in each of his fingers and control them with precision.
This breakthrough, the artificial simulation of touch via a direct-to-brain interface, can revolutionize the treatment of paralysis. It might still be in its preliminary stages, but with continued research and improvements, it could pave the way for advanced prosthetics that will not only help paralyzed people or amputees manipulate objects, it will help them regain their sense of feeling too.