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Image credit: University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

Neural implants and robot arms allow paralyzed man to feel again

This is the first time artificial sensory inputs have been transmitted directly into the brain.
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University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

After breaking his neck more than a decade ago, Nathan Copeland has finally regained his sense of touch. The only catch is that those feeling are fake -- artificially generated by a robotic arm and an array of tiny electrodes embedded in his brain by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

According to a study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine on Thursday, this system fully bypasses Copeland's natural sensory pathway, which had been severed in his accident, and instead transmits electrical signals directly into his sensory and motor cortices. This enables him to not only feel when something presses against the robotic hand but also control the mechanical arm using only his thoughts. Well, technically, his thoughts are first routed through an external computer which decodes the intent and translates it into commands that drive the robot arm. In all, it only took Copeland about a month of training to learn to competently control his new appendage.

Obviously, this technology is in its most rudimentary form and won't be leaving the lab anytime soon. Researchers must first figure out how to shrink the size of the equipment and integrate it into the patient's body as well as develop a better understanding of the biological mechanisms that occur in the sensory cortex. Still, this is an exciting development and marks the next step in a long line of mind-controlled prostheses.

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