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Breakthrough: Brain-Controlled Robotic Arm Helps Paralyzed Man to Feel Again

Oct 14, 2016 04:00 AM EDT
Shadow Dexterous Robot Hand holding a lightbulb
In a scientific breakthrough, for the first time, a mind-controlled robotic arm makes a paralyzed man, 28-year-old Nathan Copeland, feel the sensation of touch 10 years after his accident. Pictured above is a Shadow Dexterous Robot Hand holding a lightbulb.
(Photo : Richard Greenhill and Hugo Elias (myself) of the Shadow Robot Company/Wikimedia Commons)

In a scientific breakthrough, for the first time, a mind-controlled robotic arm makes a paralyzed man, 28-year-old Nathan Copeland, feel the sensation of touch 10 years after his accident.

According to the study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, scientists from the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences managed to develop a Brain Computer Interface (BCI) which, which will allow Copeland and other humans to experience touch through a brain-controlled robotic arm.

"The most important result in this study is that microstimulation of sensory cortex can elicit natural sensation instead of tingling," said Andrew B. Schwartz, Ph.D., co-author of the study, in a press release. "This stimulation is safe, and the evoked sensations are stable over months. There is still a lot of research that needs to be carried out to better understand the stimulation patterns needed to help patients make better movements."

Science Daily notes that there have been successful attempts in the past to use mind-controlled robotic arms to perfrom everyday tasks such as Jan Scheuermann, a quadriplegia, to eat a cake as well as Tim Hemmes, a paralyzed patient from an accident, to hold hands with his girlfriend.

However, what makes this current study different is that it goes beyond mere muscle control. The robotic arm doesn't just move, it can feel a sensation and differentiate objects by touching,

The breakthrough BCI features a microelectrode array that functions as a bridge where inputs from the robotic are transmitted to the neurons in the brain. The microelectrode array and its control system was developed by Blackrock Microsystems while the robotic arm was created byJohn Hopkin's University's Applied Physics Lab.

As for Copeland, after trying out the system, he said, "I can feel just about every finger -- it's a really weird sensation. Sometimes it feels electrical and sometimes its pressure, but for the most part, I can tell most of the fingers with definite precision. It feels like my fingers are getting touched or pushed."

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