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Brain Chip Helps Paralyzed Man Feel His Fingers

Nathan Copeland, paralyzed from the chest down for 12 years, can feel his fingers again. And he fist-bumped President Obama with a robotic hand.
A brain implant has allowed Nathan Copeland to sense touch using a robotic hand.
A brain implant has allowed Nathan Copeland to sense touch using a robotic hand.UPMC/Pitt Health Sciences

An implanted brain chip is helping Nathan Copeland feel his fingers for the first time in a decade.

Copeland, who lost all feeling and movement from the chest down after a car accident in 2004, can also “feel” the fingers of a robotic arm using the chip.

He showed it off Thursday by fist-bumping President Barack Obama.

"Let’s see what you got," Obama said after meeting Copeland at a science event organized by the White House in Pittsburgh.

"That is unbelievable," Obama added. "Nathan is moving his hand with his brain."

A brain implant has allowed Nathan Copeland to sense touch using a robotic hand.UPMC/Pitt Health Sciences

Copeland's the latest patient helping test brain interfaces being designed by a team at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"I can feel just about every finger. It's a really weird sensation," Copeland, 30, said in a statement released by the university.

“Sometimes it feels electrical and sometimes it's pressure, but for the most part, I can tell most of the fingers with definite precision," he said. "It feels like my fingers are getting touched or pushed."

It's actually a series of chips that are helping Copeland feel again, and control a robotic arm with a specially designed robotic hand with sensors that relay electronic impulses to Copeland’s brain.

"I can feel just about every finger. It's a really weird sensation."

The experiment, described in a report in Science Translational Medicine, is the latest coup from the UPMC working to restore a little life to people otherwise unable to move much on their own.

Related: New Bionic Hand Restores Sense of Touch

They’ve also been working with Jan Scheuermann, paralyzed by a degenerative disease, who’s tried out a variety of thought-controlled robotic arms. Other teams are also working on thought-controlled prostheses for people.

"Slowly but surely, we have been moving this research forward,” said Dr. Michael Boninger, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation who is part of the team.

"The ultimate goal is to create a system which moves and feels just like a natural arm would," said Robert Gaunt, another team member.

Related: 8 Paralyzed patients Regain Feeling and Movement

For Copeland, it took months for his brain to even be able to interpret the signals.

“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.

Researcher Rob Gaunt prepares Nathan Copeland for brain computer interface sensory test. This material relates to a paper that appeared in the Oct. 12 October issue of Science Translational Medicine, published by AAAS. The paper, by S.N. Flesher at University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, PA, and colleagues was titled, "Intracortical microstimulation of human somatosensory cortex."UPMC / Pitt Health Sciences

Then he reported being able to feel actual contact.

“It’s almost like if you pushed there, but I didn’t quite feel ... the touch,” the report quotes Copeland as saying.

Most important, the sensations did not feel like "pins and needles" but was far more complex and natural feeling, the team said.

Related: Nerve Implants Let Patients Feel Artificial Fingers

He cannot feel hot or cold yet but when someone presses on the robotic fingers, Copeland can identify which finger is being touched, the team reports.

Copeland had been a budding scientist before his accident, studying nanofabrication. Now he’s taking part in his own, real-life science experiment.

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"Luke Skywalker got his hand chopped off, and the next day he has a robot one,” Copeland says in a video released by Pitt.

"That could be someone else, not even that far in the future."