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Brain Electrodes And A Robotic Arm Give A Paralyzed Man His Sense Of Touch

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Researchers have successfully found a way to restore a paralyzed man’s sense of touch using robotics, in an unprecedented study.

Nathan Copeland, 30, was in a car accident twelve years ago, where he lost his sense of touch and the ability to control his hands. But scientists at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center were able to come up with a way for Copeland to feel his fingers again.

The researchers used a mind-controlled robotic arm containing pressure sensors for each fingertip that would send signals straight to Copeland’s brain, NPR reports. When Copeland touched an object using the robotic hand, he was able to tell which finger the feeling was coming from, and determine if an object was hard or soft.

Copeland calls it a “weird sensation” but that it also felt natural. He says,

Sometimes it feels, kind of, like electrical and sometimes it’s more of a pressure.

Robert Gaunt, a bioengineer and assistant professor in the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh, says that the results may be small victories, but they’re still very limited. They cannot, for example, get Copeland to tell the difference between fabrics.

The robotic arm, called a Modular Prosthetic Limb, was developed at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Both the limb and the study are supported by the national Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Mike McLoughlin, an engineer who helped create the limb, says the success in Copeland’s case is “absolutely critical in terms of making prosthetics useful.”

Scientists have been experimenting with robotics and limb movements for some time now, and patients have been able to control prosthetic limbs with their thoughts. But it has always been reliant on vision, so patients could not accurately judge whether they were holding something properly because of the lack of sensations.

Copeland was a difficult case, as a spinal cord injury essentially disconnected his hand from his brain. However, his brain did not lose the ability to feel, so the scientists thought to work on sending touch signals directly to the brain.

They monitored Copeland’s brain activity using magnetoencephalography. Then they put tiny electrodes in his brain that could stimulate the areas in each finger, and waited for the brain to heal and adjust to the electrodes. After several weeks, the team tried sending a tiny pulse of electricity, which Copeland felt.

While this initial achievement had the whole team cheering, and Copeland hopeful, Gaunt says it might years before the technology can be used for commercial applications. Mind-control robots are very expensive and bulky, impractical for use outside a lab. There’s also no way to regulate or control the robot without having to implant electrodes in a patient’s brain.

Still, the potentials are endless and offer plenty of hope for people who are paralyzed, or suffer from physical disabilities.

“We’re on the verge of something here that’s going to transform lives,” McLoughlin says.

The study was published in Science Translational Medicine.

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