Brain Implant Helps Man Feel Sensation On Robotic Arm; Shakes Hands With Obama

By J Russ I. , Oct 14, 2016 03:00 AM EDT

In 2004, Nathan Copeland was involved in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Thanks to a recent breakthrough by the medical and robotics field, he can now feel sensation through his bionic arm.

Copeland is just one of the many patients helping researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in testing out brain interfaces to see how technology can better the lives of paralyzed individuals. This advancement in medical science has recently brought Copeland face to face with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Copeland Shakes Hand and First-Bumps Obama

"Let's see what you got," Obama told Copeland after meeting with him at a science event arranged by the White House in Pittsburgh. The 30-year-old responded by fist-bumping and shaking hands with the president, to which Obama expressed his amazement at the bionic arm's precision, reported the Telegraph.

The technology behind the feat is a series of brain chips that were placed inside Copeland's head. The chips allow him to manipulate the robotic hand with sensors that send electric impulses to his brain.

The U.S. president went on to add that this technology will only get better as the years roll by where further development will push it up to a far more sophisticated level. Copeland himself described the sensation that the breakthrough brought as being "weird."

This research is part of a broader search to find answers that would lead experts in developing artificial limbs that can feel. In a report released by the Pittsburgh team on Thursday, they revealed some of the results that their study uncovered.

The researchers placed a blindfold on Copeland and had him identify which finger of the robotic arm they were touching. Copeland correctly recognized what index it was with an 84 percent accuracy.

"The majority of them, it felt like a pressure or a tingling," he said. When a researcher touched two fingers at once, Copeland laughed saying, "Are you trying to be tricky or something?"

Robotic Arm Taking Researchers A Step Closer To Their Ultimate Goal

"During the initial weeks after implant, the participant reported spontaneous sensations in the absence of electrical stimulation, often described as tingling, occurring throughout his right hand and arm, which were of moderate intensity and frequency but not bothersome," the team wrote. Copeland eventually started feeling actual contact, said NBCNews.

This medical advancement is a remarkable step towards the researchers' goal. Sensation, as it's known, is an integral part of human interaction with objects.

"People have an incredibly difficult time interacting with objects, picking objects up, manipulating them, doing fairly basic things with the hand if they don't have a very basic sense of touch," Robert Gaunt, a Pittsburgh assistant professor of rehabilitation who led the new study, said. With this breakthrough, however, that difficulty has been significantly reduced.

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