Scientists are sending signals from the brain to prosthetic limbs—and back to the brain.
In 2004, Nathan Copeland, who was 18, was driving home in the rain. Just two miles from his house, he lost control of his car and crashed. An injury to his spinal cord left him paralyzed from the neck down.
Today, Copeland needs assistance to eat and dress each day and he uses an electronic wheelchair that he operates with the limited mobility in his arms. His favorite hobbies are things he can do from his chair: video games, anime, and the role-playing card game Magic: The Gathering.
A few times a week for the past year and a half, Copeland has made the hour-long trip from his home in rural southwestern Pennsylvania to participate in research at the University of Pittsburgh. He makes the trek, even though the experiments probably won’t ever change his own life.
“But eventually, down the road, it’s really going to help all kinds of people,” Copeland said. “It’ll really improve their lives, even something as simple as being able to feed yourself can really make a life better.”
Surgeons placed four implants in Copeland’s head that send signals to his nerves. Each implant is about one-inch square with a hundred tiny hair-like probes sunk into his brain, attached to individual brain cells. Two devices sit in the part of the brain that controls movement. Two others are in the section that processes sensation.
It’s hard to see the implants through his thick, brown hair, but two metal bolts protrude out of Copeland’s head. Each time he visits the bioengineering lab, researchers link his brain to a robotic arm by plugging clunky gray cables into the bolts.
These implants make Copeland one of the first humans ever to “feel” something he’s not actually touching.
“There’s about four or five different sensations I can feel. The most common is a pressure or a tingling,” he said. “Sometimes it’s like warm. There’s one that’s really weird and hard to describe, I just call it spidey sense.”
At the White House Frontiers Conference, a showcase for cutting-edge scientific research and technology, Copeland used the robotic hand to fist bump President Obama.
“Think about this. He hasn’t been able to use his arms or legs for over a decade but now he can once again feel the touch of another person,” Obama said during his 2016 conference/keynote address in Pittsburgh.
“That’s what science does. That’s what American innovation can do,” Obama said. “Imagine the breakthroughs that are around the corner. Imagine what’s possible for Nathan if we keep on pushing the boundaries.”
There are still major hurdles to jump over before this technology can go into clinical trials. The most obvious one is those large clunky cables sticking out of Copeland’s head.
“That’s not a solution,” said Pitt biomedical researcher Rob Gaunt. “This is a temporary thing that we need to do this research right now, but that has got to go away. We can’t send people home with those things.”
Gaunt said, ideally, the technology will eventually work without wires. There are several research institutions and private companies working on the problem.
“There’s actually a lot of optimism that within a couple of years these devices really will achieve that wireless capability,” Gaunt said. “But these are hard problems. These are the types of things that have never been done before, in terms of putting wireless devices in the human body.”
Gaunt said it could be as many as 10 years before the team is ready for a clinical trial to test the technology on a larger group of people.
Michael Boninger, who heads the human engineering lab, takes an even longer view. He envisions Pitts’ bioengineering advances being used in concert with biological innovations in the field of stem cell research.
“Do I think we’ll have full recovery in a hundred years? The answer is, yes, I completely believe that,” Boninger said. “I’m not going to be the person who’s working on that, but I’m hoping that they’ll build off of what we’ve done here at the University of Pittsburgh.”