- Nathan Copeland is the first human recipient of electrode implants in the sensory cortex of his brain, which allows him to control a robotic arm with his thoughts and receive tactile feedback.
- The sensory feedback significantly improves the time it takes for Copeland to complete tasks with the robotic arm, reducing the average task completion time by half.
- Scientists historically focused on implanting electrodes in the motor cortex for controlling external devices, but are now also harnessing sensory data for a more realistic interaction.
- Despite the progress, this technology requires more advancements before it can be widely adopted, as it needs to become less invasive and more user-friendly.
- Copeland remains hopeful that his participation in this research can contribute towards changing lives with this technology in the future.
The revolutionary robotic arm reaches for a small cube under the direction of signals from neural implants. These implants, residing in the brain of partially paralysed individual Nathan Copeland, transmit precise and swift commands.
With exceptional smoothness, Copeland’s mental instructions allow the robotic arm to pick up the cube and place it in a different part of the tabletop – a feat of science and engineering made possible by first-of-its-kind technology.
Meeting the Man Behind the Innovation
Copeland, 34, carries the unique distinction of being the first human recipient of electrode implants in the sensory cortex of his brain. These implants relay tactile data to his brain when the robotic hand interacts with various objects, signifying whether or not he’s managed to successfully grasp any given item.
“I was not only able to see the interaction of the hand with the object, but I also received additional reassurance and confidence that I indeed made contact and applied a certain amount of pressure,” said Copeland, residing in Dunbar, Pa. “I felt certain that if I lifted the object from the table, it wouldn’t slip from my grasp.”
Major Time Improvement
The technological feedback has drastically improved the time it takes for Copeland to manipulate objects with the robotic arm, according to Jennifer Collinger, an associate professor with the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
Before introduction of this sensory feedback, Copeland typically took approximately 20 seconds to complete such object-related tasks. However, his task completion time has now reduced by half, providing a significant performance upgrade.
Transformative Technology at Work
Historically, researchers developing brain-computer interfaces concentrated on implanting electrodes in the motor cortex, the brain region responsible for movement. Scientists demonstrated that signals originating from the motor cortex could be decoded by a computer, facilitating actions such as guiding robotic arms or moving cursors on a screen.
However, they are now focusing on another crucial aspect of physical movement: the sensory data returned to the brain from active limbs.
Copeland’s Journey with the Technology
Six years ago, Copeland’s brain had an array of electrodes implanted into both his motor and sensory cortexes, following a car accident that severely impaired his arm usage. This has led to an interesting and rewarding journey, despite the inherent challenges.
Endless Possibilities But a Long Road Ahead
The groundbreaking application of this technology is not without its difficulties, as Copeland spent many years practising using the robot arm on sight only prior to the integration of the sensory electrodes.
Despite the notable progress reported in the scientific journal, this technology will not be mainstream anytime soon, as per experts. While there’s significant interest in this area, the technology still need significant improvements to be less invasive, easy to connect, and become more user-friendly.
Despite the difficult process involved in this research, Copeland holds on to the hope that his involvement could pave the way for this technology to change lives in the future.
Get more information about brain-computer interfaces from the University of Pittsburgh.
Sources: Nathan Copeland, Jennifer Collinger, University of Pittsburgh, David Putrino, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, J. Luis Lujan, Mayo Clinic.