A man was paralyzed for ten years without movement of any limbs, and then after participating in a scientific research experiment, he can feel natural things again. What is your first reaction?
For Nathan Copeland it was shock. After a car accident as a teenager, Nathan was diagnosed with tetraplegia-the inability to move your arms or legs. Now 30 years old, he is the first in a research study to bring natural feeling back into paralyzed limbs. To regain feeling in a new limb is much harder than movement, which is why movement of prosthetic limbs has been a reality for amputees and other medical cases.
The University of Pittsburgh and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center are working in collaboration to bypass Copeland’s paralyzed spinal cord from electrodes in his brain. They gave him brain surgery to place four electrodes that are smaller than a grain of sand on the sensory cortex of his brain that senses touch in right hand and fingers. The electrodes in his brain then receive signals from the robot arm. Sophomore Eilidh MacDonald said, “This is inspiring for all the people out there that are paralyzed, they can now have hope of being able to use the robot arm as a replacement for their real arm in the future.”
Fortunately, when Nathan started the trial five years ago, he already had a chip in his brain to control the robot arm. So, to perform the tests, he was blindfolded so he could not see what was going on and asked which finger the researcher was pressing. Copeland could feel the exact finger and when tested, got them all correct. He describes the feeling as either a pressure or electrical. This same test was repeated over several months. This is a major breakthrough for the scientific community, as regaining feeling in a foreign limb was once unheard of.
Surgeons, biomedical engineers, and doctors have been working together to accomplish this amazing feat in restoring a critical function for people with paralysis. Robert Gaunt, a biomedical engineer, said, “to even get to this point involved massive collaboration with multiple institutions and researchers.”
Nathan Copeland is continuing to work towards major growth in people with paralysis. The goal is to be able to pick up objects and move around. With the new advances in artificial touch, people with paralysis will be able to recognize what is fragile or soft and gage how to control their robotic hand and pick things up. The major scientific discoveries that lead to a new life for Copeland continue to grow in the scientific community, and could change many lives in the near future.
By: Katherine McCormick